Why Fear a Brokered Convention?
It turns out that rules and strategy are a key part of winning.
“Somebody said, ‘Well, there’s a rule and another rule.’ I don’t care about rules, folks. … We win, we get the delegates.” —Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump
That, in a nutshell, summarizes the Trump campaign’s approach to winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; defying and discarding conventional rules of politics, refusing to abide by the traditional rules of decorum that provide a patina of civility to an often bitter political process, choosing instead to resort to character assassination and open mockery of his opponents (likening Ben Carson to a child molester, branding Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” labeling Rubio “Little Marco,” and mocking Carly Fiorina’s looks, just to name a few).
Trump, with virtually no traditional political organization to start, relied on sheer force of will and a larger-than-life personality to rise in the polls. Trump’s faux pas and unapologetic coarseness seemed only to increase his popularity. Trump has been the frontrunner in the race almost from the day he announced.
His non-traditional strategy has worked well thus far, but recently, like Achilles’ heel, Trump’s lack of grassroots political organization has proven a serious liability. By contrast, long before he announced his own candidacy, Ted Cruz was working in the political ditches, recruiting grassroots activists and local elected officials at the county and district level to serve as campaign chairs and eventually as delegates during the Republican convention cycle. It has paid off. The race has come down to the strength of Trump’s cult of personality versus the breadth and depth of Cruz’s grassroots campaign organization.
A month ago, Trump looked unstoppable. He did extremely well — though not quite as well as expected — in the Super Tuesday states. He bested Cruz in the Southern states that made up the Cruz “firewall,” he was being endorsed by former foes, and there were open calls for the party to unite behind him. However, after Cruz’s strong showings in recent weeks, and unforced errors on Trump’s part (like saying that women who have abortions need to be punished), what seemed an inevitable Trump run to 1,237 (the number of delegates needed at the convention to win the nomination) now seems increasingly in doubt. Trump supporters are livid at the possibility that the nomination will be “stolen” from their man by a mysterious, nefarious cabal of political insiders.
While there are certainly a large number of Republicans openly and vigorously opposing a Trump nomination, the reality is that there is nothing nefarious or mysterious about what is going on in the GOP primary race. The nomination process has been in place since Lincoln won the nomination at a contested convention in 1860, and the current convention rules have been in place since Ronald Reagan almost knocked off a sitting president of his own party in 1976.
The furor from the Trump supporters comes from the realization that Cruz has out-strategized Trump. If Trump was able to win the nomination outright by sheer force of will, then he looks brilliant. But with Cruz using the rules to his full advantage, and gaining delegates as a result, Trump is likely denied a win on the first ballot.
For example, though Trump beat Cruz in Louisiana last month by 3.6%, Cruz could end up with as many as 10 more delegates than Trump. That is because Louisiana’s rules allocated both Trump and Cruz 18 delegates based on the popular vote, but with Marco Rubio’s exit from the race his delegates can go where they want, and the state’s five other unbound delegates are also free to choose their candidate. Early indications are that nine, and possibly all 10, of the “free agent” delegates will align with Cruz. That is the benefit of having gone out and recruited supporters among potential delegates more than 18 months ago. This type of ground game is what has helped Cruz secure unbound delegates in North Dakota and Colorado this month, which also has Trump frustrated and angry.
What makes this process so difficult to navigate is that each of the 50 states (plus the U.S. territories) has their own way of doing things. Some states are true winner-take-all, where 50%+1 gets all of the delegates. Other states apportion by congressional district, and still other states have a hybrid where each congressional district winner gets three delegates, with the state’s additional “at-large” delegates awarded to the state’s overall popular vote winner. It is a complex maze of rules, and requires a strong campaign team, dedicated to learning the intricacies of each state’s rules, to navigate. Cruz has had such a team in place from the beginning. Trump only recently realized the need for it.
There is a lot of anger and paranoia floating around right now based on a lot of procedural ignorance and misinformation, so let’s separate fact from fiction regarding delegate election and allocation, and what can happen at the Republican National Convention.
First, we live in a republic, not a democracy. The nominees for each party are chosen not by the popular votes cast in each state, but by the votes of the convention delegates at the convention. How those delegates are chosen, and how they must vote at the convention, are up to the party rules and election laws of each state. The vast majority of the delegates are required to vote for their state’s or district’s winner on the first convention ballot. In the event that the first ballot does not produce a winner, a little over half the delegates are “unbound” on the second ballot, free to vote for the candidate of their choosing. By the third ballot almost all delegates are unbound. A small percentage of the delegates (from North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, American Samoa, and Guam) are unbound from the start.
Trump now protests that the delegates are being pressured and influenced to vote against him, but 1) his bound delegates have no choice on the first ballot but to vote for him, and 2) almost none of the delegates are yet known, because the vast majority of the states have not held their district and state conventions where the delegates will be chosen. The method of choosing delegates was established by the states and filed with the RNC no later than Oct. 15, 2015, back when the field was still extremely crowded. There is no mechanism at this point for changing how delegates are chosen. Additionally, unlike the Democrat Party, all of the delegates of the Republican Party are chosen by the grassroots at the county, district and state conventions. There are no “superdelegates,” party elites who essentially have veto power over the grassroots delegates.
The other fear the Trump supporters have expressed is that the convention rules will be changed and rigged against Trump. Again though, this shows ignorance of the process. At the convention, the will of the delegates reigns supreme. The convention rules will be established by the delegates at the convention, not by the RNC, not by “the establishment,” but by the delegates. You can have an entire hotel filled with cigar-smoking fat-cats scheming and planning, but unless the delegates vote to implement their plans, it is for naught. And since the vast majority of the delegates will be Trump or Cruz supporters, what is the likelihood that they will willingly rig the game so that someone else can win?
Rumors have swirled in recent days of plans to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs for an outright win and forcing a brokered convention, after which House Speaker Paul Ryan will be named the nominee. The problem with this is Rule 40(b), which requires the nominee to have received the support of the majority of the delegates of at least eight states. The only candidates that will qualify under that rule are Trump and Cruz. Granted, the Rules Committee can change that rule before the convention, and the delegates can vote to adopt the rule at the start of the convention, but with the vast majority of the delegates being Trump or Cruz supporters, why would they undermine their own candidates? Besides, even Ryan has repeatedly said that the eventual nominee should be someone who has run during the campaign.
Though Trump supporters demand he be awarded the nomination if he gets “close enough,” claiming that to deny him is to deny “the will of the people” and “disenfranchise” them, no such thing will have occurred. He has yet to get the majority of the votes in any state, and while his support is entrenched and unshakeable, the fence-sitters have overwhelmingly moved away from Trump in the last month.
In response to his declining fortunes, Trump has doubled down, by his own hand, and through his surrogates, as when former top Trump adviser Roger Stone threatened recently, “We’re going to have protests, demonstrations – we will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal. If you’re from Pennsylvania, we’ll tell you who the culprits are. We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.” Nothing like a little New York-style mafia thuggery to let everyone know you are a man “of the people.”
Trump, who lives and dies by the polls, should understand the coalition to defeat him. Trump is the most deeply unpopular candidate to run for president in decades. His unfavorablility ratings are stratospheric among women (even women in his own party), Hispanics, independents and Millennials, and almost half of the members of his own party detest him. Poll after poll shows he will be destroyed by Hillary Clinton, herself very unpopular, in the general election. A month ago the RealClearPolitics average of polls had Trump losing to Hillary by three points. A month later, he is losing by eleven points. Other polling shows Trump losing every single swing state, and even losing the reddest of red states, Utah, to Clinton.
Trump claims to be the best negotiator in history. If so, he should have no problem convincing the voters of the remaining states to hand him the nomination outright or, at the very least, convince the majority of delegates at the Republican National Convention to award him the nomination.
However, much like the Electoral College, the nomination process and the convention are formulated so that we arrive at a candidate that can unify the party and win the majority of the states in a general election. If Trump can’t close the deal, and another candidate ultimately wins the nomination, that is not cheating, that is not being “disenfranchised,” that is the process at work.
It would be deeply ironic if Trump — a man who brags about having gamed the system for decades, being an establishment insider, bribing politicians, using eminent domain and bankruptcy laws to his advantage, and abusing the H1-B visa system because he could — ends up losing the nomination because another candidate, Ted Cruz, used his intricate knowledge of the rules to his advantage.