Delegate Rules Aren't 'Rigged' Just Because Trump Doesn't Like Them
In recent weeks, Donald Trump has been bellyaching that the Republican Party’s presidential nominating rules are unfair. “It’s a rigged, disgusting, dirty system,” the front-runner fumes. He argues that “whoever gets the most delegates should win,” and not be bound by the “artificial” and “random” provision of an actual majority. And he lashes out at a “corrupt and crooked” system that empowers party officials and activists to choose those delegates in county and state caucuses. “That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work,” he complains.
Of course, Trump had no objection to “rigged” winner-take-all primary rules in states like South Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, where he nailed 100 percent of the delegates despite getting less than half the votes. Heading into Tuesday’s election in New York, Trump had won just 37 percent of all the votes cast in Republican contests this year, while amassing 48 percent of the delegates. That lopsided tally doesn’t seem to have troubled Trump’s democratic sensibilities.
But what if we take Trump’s newfound critique of undemocratic political rules at face value? Maybe he is sincere when he denounces a system in which outcomes may not mirror the popular will. Maybe he is truly distressed to realize that the GOP’s nominating procedure is “not the way democracy is supposed to work.”
In that case, let’s hope Trump never gets a look at the Constitution.
Far from exalting pure democracy, the founders of the American republic profoundly distrusted it. The Constitution’s first words are “We, the People,” but a wariness of popularity and public passion is embedded in the constitutional framework. The framers took pains to disperse authority among multiple institutions, all of them answering to different classes, groups, and interests. They divided control among different branches of the federal government, while reserving other powers to the states. At every turn, they rejected the idea that winning the most votes settles every question. Thus, the Senate is “rigged” to give the least populous state as much power as the most populous, and it takes only 51 senators — sometimes just 41 — to block legislation that hundreds of members of Congress may support. Supermajorities are required to ratify treaties and override vetoes. And the Constitution cannot be amended without supermajorities in both Congress and the state legislatures.
Trump places great stock in the legitimacy conferred by opinion polls and TV ratings and the size of the crowds at his rallies. The Founders, by contrast, feared the tyranny of majorities, and crafted rules designed to restrain the will of the people — above all when it came to the selection of presidents.
For all the fervor of presidential campaigns, and for all the focus on the popular election in November, it is actually the Electoral College that chooses America’s chief executive. The Constitution grants each state a free hand in choosing its electors, and those electors are not constitutionally bound to vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote. Granted, they almost always do so. But under our system — not a direct democracy, but an indirect democratic republic — the states, not the people, elect the president. The framers wanted a government that could resist populist pressures; the Electoral College is one of many fail-safes they fashioned to protect American liberty from the dangers of popular frenzy.
Similarly, the Republican and Democratic parties have created a presidential nominating process that requires more than winning votes in primaries. Voters get a large but not decisive say in choosing a nominee. Party officials, grass-roots activists, and elected officials share power, too. Convention delegates are not mere rubber-stamps; their role is to elect a nominee around whom their party can rally. That may be the candidate who leads the delegate count when the convention is called to order. Or it may not.
If Trump wants the GOP nomination, he’ll have to play by the rules and earn it. Those rules may be complicated, but they certainly aren’t arbitrary. And the more Trump whines about how “rigged” they are, the more he reveals his own unfitness for office.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.