Is Donald Trump Being Robbed? No, He’s Just Being Whiny.
If Trump can’t win an ouright majority during the primaries, an open convention offers a chance for a run-off election of sorts. And that’s just fine.
Trump’s decisive win Tuesday in his home state of New York makes a contested GOP convention a bit less likely, but there’s still a solid chance that he won’t win a majority of the delegates during the primaries, and the candidates will have to scrap it out at the convention to see who comes out on top. If Trump doesn’t have a majority of the delegates on the first ballot at the convention, a lot of the delegates become unbound on the second round of convention voting, meaning they could switch to Cruz or some other figure.
Trump and his followers insist this is wrong, that the whole system of candidates persuading delegates to back them on second and subsequent ballots is unfair, and that the GOP candidate with the most delegates going into the convention should automatically get the nomination, even if that candidate doesn’t have an outright majority. But Trump is mistaken, and for at least a couple of reasons.
Consulting the American Founders
First, the American founders understood the dangers of pure democracy and wisely urged against such an approach. The complex system of primaries, caucuses and delegates — some bound, some unbound, some unbound early in a convention and some only if it drags on — and with each state having different rules: all of this fussy complexity is of a piece with the founders’ preference for a republic over a pure democracy.
In preferring a republic, the founders searched out and encouraged various ways to temper the impetuous and shifting desires of the majority (or in this case, a plurality of GOP voters). They did so by encouraging a complex system of informed and deliberate input from representatives of various kinds and at various levels (president, Senate and House; national, state and local) and, not surprisingly, they encouraged political parties whose nominating processes also reflected such an approach.
It’s never a perfect strategy because the delegates and other representatives are fallen human beings every bit as much as are the masses. But when adhered to, it can at least slow down an avalanche of popular impulse that is rash and poorly informed. It has served the United States well for more than 200 years.
How About a Run-Off?
Second, the convention gives the GOP a chance to stage what amounts to a run-off election between Trump and Cruz.
Think about it. If neither candidate achieves an outright majority in what was long a crowded race, the natural question arises: Which one would win in a nationwide run-off election between Trump and Cruz, were such a followup election possible — a run-off where well-informed Republican voters could vote after looking at everything we have learned about the top two candidates in this long GOP race, could consider their strengths and weaknesses as candidates, and could take into account recent polls measuring how each matches up against the Democratic front-runner?
National polls of head-to-head match-ups between Trump and Cruz have yielded mixed results, with Trump leading in some and Cruz leading in some. But on average, state polls have overstated Trump’s numbers and understated Cruz’s ahead of primary contests, so mixed head-to-head results may point to a Cruz advantage on this point. Meanwhile, polls this year measuring how well each man does against Hillary Clinton strongly suggest that Cruz would be a much stronger general election candidate than Trump.
There isn’t the time or means to stage an actual national run-off GOP nomination election between Trump and Cruz, but an open convention could provide us the best live alternative to that. That’s a good thing.
Unmerited, and Inconsistent
But what about states like Colorado that don’t have an ordinary election and where, instead, the delegates choose? The Trump campaign and its supporters were furious that the Colorado GOP delegates chose Cruz. The process was a change the state party made last March, one that eliminated the presidential preference election and instead has precinct caucus attendees choose the delegates. Trump has been suggesting that these delegates ignored the will of Colorado Republicans by backing Cruz, but where is the evidence? Cruz has dominated neighboring High Plains and Rocky Mountain states, so is it really a surprise or an injustice that he has won Colorado following the rules every candidate should have known about for months?
And where is the moral outrage from Trump after winning most or all of the delegates in states where he won only a plurality of the vote? Trump won less than half the vote in winner-take-all states like Florida and Arizona, but received all the delegates. And even in many states that aren’t winner-take-all, the rules allowed Trump to take a much higher percentage of the delegates than his percentage of the popular vote. The outrage over Colorado, then, is both unmerited and inconsistent.
Winning the Wooing Game
The reality is that both camps are playing the delegate wooing game. The Cruz and Trump campaigns both are actively courting committed delegates to switch their votes if there is a second round of voting (when they become free to back another candidate), as well as wooing unbound delegates for first-round votes. Many of the states are starting their delegate conventions now, and Cruz is expected to attend many of them to personally try to convince the unbound delegates.
North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming are important battlegrounds here because all of their delegates are unbound in the first vote and can vote for whomever they want. Pennsylvania has 71 delegates, but only 17 of them will be bound to the winner of the April 26 primary.
The Cruz campaign is much more organized at snagging delegates than the Trump campaign, and delegates tend to be the party faithful, who lean toward Cruz over Trump, a businessman who was a pro-choice Democrat until fairly recently. Noted Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg observed, “Cruz is ahead of everyone on this,” and described Cruz’s delegate-courting efforts as “equally important’ to the actual votes.”
Trump has been AWOL in several states as they were picking delegates. Cruz, in contrast, has been well-organized and aggressive. Gary Emineth, former chairman of the Republican committee of North Dakota, who was a prior delegate in the state and is seeking to become one again, offered this observation:
Cruz has the best ground game in the state. His team is very aggressive identifying the past delegates. Congratulating us on our service with in-person meet and greets, emails and phone calls. Normally delegates are incumbents, so they know who wants to be on that ballot. I have not heard from Trump.
Cruz is even having his father, Rafael Cruz, talk to delegates there.
One of Trump’s talking points is that he’s a skilled businessman with a talent for organization. There may be some truth to that, but there is little evidence those skills have transferred to the political arena and to managing a large, complex presidential campaign. He has long depended on his bully pulpit as a New York billionaire, Apprentice TV show celebrity, and headline-grabbing bomb thrower, using these things separately or in combination to suck up media oxygen and squeeze competitors from the field. But along the way he did little to organize an aggressive ground game or delegate-courting apparatus.
That strategy is now coming back to bite him, and he hasn’t been the best of sports over getting schooled. In states like Arizona, the Trump campaign has accused the Cruz campaign of trying to “steal” delegates. State party chairman Robert Graham is being accused of selecting delegates for Cruz even though Trump won the state. A petition has been launched to remove Graham from the position, although it only has 116 signatures. And Trump’s sometime adviser Roger Stone promised to publicize the hotel-room numbers of delegates at the national convention who participate “in the steal.”
Cruz, however, is playing by the rules and is the one GOP candidate still in the race who is urging the party not to change any of the rules last minute. While Trump was taking days off to rest and basks in the free publicity the mainstream media has lavished on him, Cruz has been doing the hard work of meeting with delegates all across the country. He is working to persuade them that he would be the better general election candidate and to vote for him in and when they are free to according to rules long in place for open conventions.
So far, Republican officials are generally adhering to established rules. Where they could get into trouble is if they try to substantially change the convention rules at the last minute in an effort to maneuver some establishment candidate into the nomination. There is already so much uproar over the power the delegates wield that changing the rules on top of that could cause a Republican civil war. The RNC’s best move is to leave the rules as they are and let the contest play out. And if they really want to stop Trump without damaging the party, they should bring all their persuasive powers to bear on convincing Kasich to drop out before the convention and to back Cruz.