Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

The Nomination Process Isn’t Rigged

A cowboy hat is used to collect votes at a Republican caucus in Ottumwa, Iowa, February 1, 2016. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty)
Rather, its mix of direct and indirect democracy is a strength.

In one of his rare cases of truth in advertising, Donald Trump recently commented, “I keep whining and whining until I win.” That tactic has never been so obviously on display as in his recent drumbeat of complaints about the GOP primary-election process.

Never mind that, as of this writing, Trump leads the GOP field with 45 percent of all delegates awarded to date, despite having won only 37 percent of GOP voters, a ratio far more advantageous than that of his closest rival, Ted Cruz (whom I have endorsed). Never mind that, according to mediaQuant, a firm that calculates the advertising value of free TV exposure, he’s received free coverage estimated to be worth $2 billion, almost 600 percent more than Cruz has received, even though Cruz has won only 9 percent less of the vote. And never mind that the man demanding that the GOP elect him by acclamation by effectively disenfranchising delegates has not managed to command a majority of voters in any state except his home state of New York.

In effect, Trump is complaining that the nomination process is a process, complete with competition for delegates and different rules in each state, and not simply a coronation of the winner of the popular vote nationally. “The rules surrounding the delegate selection have been clearly laid out in every state and territory and while each state is different, each process is easy to understand for those willing to learn it,” the RNC said recently in a memo in response to his charges.

Trump has counted on his free-media advantage. (Media like Trump because he boosts ratings, and liberal media like him also because they see him as the weakest potential Republican nominee.) If Trump were on track to win a majority of the vote, or anything near it, he would be coasting to the nomination no matter what GOP and conservative leaders thought. But he doesn’t have a majority, and his failure to build an effective campaign organization is coming back to haunt him.

To better understand the spuriousness of Trump’s complaint, it is useful to review the primary process to date. Trump won most of his early victories against a large field of candidates, who divided the votes of Republicans who opposed him. Analyzing exit polls of the head-to-head preferences of voters, we can say definitively that the divided field cost Cruz victories in Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan, and North Carolina — and very likely in Illinois, Kentucky, and Louisiana. It is possible that divided opposition swung Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi into the Trump column as well. In Michigan, which Trump won by 13 percentage points over Cruz, exit polls showed Cruz beating Trump head to head. In many Republican primaries, Trump has benefited tremendously also from the ability of non-Republicans to vote. Through mid April Cruz had won as many closed GOP contests as Trump had.

The states in which Cruz expected to be strongest held their contests when the field of candidates was much larger, but Cruz has never complained. Now that the field has narrowed to two and a half candidates, the contest is being waged in states that are generally more favorable to Trump. The next six primaries are in “blue wall” states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections. Trump tends to poll well among Republicans in these Democratic strongholds, none of which he would carry were he the nominee in November.

Having written in these pages about problems with the current Republican delegate-allocation system, I should in theory have some sympathy for Trump’s critique. The process is in need of reform, with arcane delegate rules that favor insiders, most egregiously in the cases of the 59 delegates awarded to territories that will not vote for president and of the disproportionate number of delegates awarded to Washington, D.C., which has few Republican voters. Rubio won most of these delegates in the GOP’s rotten boroughs, with Trump and Kasich in a tight fight for second place, and Cruz trailing far behind.

The allocation of delegates to states should also be changed, though the current system hardly seems to be the result of an establishment conspiracy against Trump. His victory in the primary in New York, whose 29 electoral votes the Democratic nominee will almost certainly win in November, helps him almost as much as does his win in the primary in Florida, a crucial swing state. Note also that the timing of the Texas primary and its allocation rules were disadvantageous to Cruz, resulting in the awarding of 48 of Texas’s 155 delegates to Trump, despite Cruz’s having won all but six of Texas’s 254 counties.

The GOP understandably wants to compete in every state, but California should not be weighted more heavily than Texas in determining the party’s nominee. The party should develop a formula that rewards performance, solid Republican states, and, in particular, swing states, while deemphasizing deep-blue states. Nor should Puerto Rico be weighted as heavily as Wyoming and more heavily than Delaware. If one were to impute bias to the GOP establishment, it would be against Cruz, who is harmed by the high number of delegates that Trump is likely to win in solidly blue states that will not be in play in the general election.

But the flaws in Trump’s critique are more fundamental than that. The heterogeneity of GOP contests, a mix of primaries, caucuses, and state conventions, is an advantage of the nomination process, not a flaw. The same is true of the party’s mix of open and closed primaries. Even conventions, which Trump maligns, are hardly smoke-filled rooms. In the first stage of the Colorado convention were almost 3,000 precinct-level events that involved tens of thousands of voters. The convention, like state caucuses, rewarded knowledgeable activists who care about the party and conservatism. In Wyoming, also a subject of recent Trump complaints, precinct caucuses (some involving hundreds of voters) and county conventions elected delegates to the state convention, which gave its support to Cruz unanimously. “In primaries, we will become numbers, we will become statistics,” one prominent Colorado GOP activist told the Denver Post. “There will be no conversations . . . and no ability to influence our neighbors.” This combination of direct and indirect democracy, which Trump abhors, is the greatest strength of the current nomination process.

That process is divided into different categories of election that reflect different degrees of popular representation, much as the three branches of the federal government do. This year, 40 states and territories hold primaries, eleven hold caucuses, and five hold conventions. This does not prevent the democratic will of voters from largely determining the first-ballot vote in Cleveland. If a majority of GOP primary voters voted for Trump to be the nominee, he almost certainly would be. (John McCain won an overwhelming delegate victory in 2008 with just over 46 percent of the popular vote.) But so far, among party activists and voters alike, Trump’s staunchest opponents appear to outnumber his staunchest allies.

Only if no candidate wins a majority of delegates from the popular-vote process do party activists and operatives begin to assume a decisive role in selecting the nominee. It is a rare occurrence. The GOP hasn’t had a plainly contested convention since 1952. Typically, by the spring of election year, one candidate emerges as the likely nominee and is acceptable enough for the party, both leaders and ordinary voters, to coalesce around. We saw this in 2008, for example, when the party’s base, which disliked McCain, embraced him as its presumptive nominee after he narrowly won some critical contests. That Trump has failed to win acceptance by the majority of his party is his fault, not the party’s. If the party establishment realized its fever dream of selecting a nominee who is not presently running for president, it might validate Trump’s broader critique, but Cruz’s savvy campaign would appear to have precluded that prospect by ensuring that as many delegates as possible will support Cruz as soon as they are able to do so. And of course Trump himself might have rendered the question moot by now had he campaigned as rigorously and smartly as Cruz.

The GOP primary process implicitly acknowledges the full range of skills a president needs to be effective, of which proficiency in the bully pulpit is just one among many: He must pay attention to detail, win allies, and organize behind the scenes. He must sometimes slog. The work of governing is hard and often tedious. Trump’s rally-and-telly campaign has failed miserably to demonstrate that he is capable in these regards. A president must do more than tweet and appear on Sean Hannity’s show. “We are very blessed that our opponent had no idea what he was doing on this until about a month ago,” notes chief Cruz delegate hunter Ken Cuccinelli. If Trump won’t bother to seriously organize in states where he easily won the popular vote, why should we think that, when grappling with complex legislation and regulation, he would be organized enough to take on the liberal establishment in Washington?

Like many liberals before him, Trump demands more direct democracy. But our Founders understood the danger of that approach and rejected it. The mixed system of republican governance that they established is admirably reflected in the GOP nomination process, despite that process’s flaws.

Cruz learned and followed the rulebook. Trump has continued to whine. It looks likely, however, that he will fail to fulfill his promise to whine until he wins.

– Mr. Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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