If you’ve been following my posts on Facebook since the start of the election, you know I’ve been banging on and on about a very specific point: delegates matter, states don’t. Don’t tell me who won a given state, tell me how many delegates each candidate won. Stop acting shocked that Bernie won more states but fell further behind, or that Trump has won a bunch of states but stil has well less than a majority of the outstanding delegates. And tonight is a truly fantastic illustration of that. Let’s go through the results:
Let’s look at Arizona – it finished first, but it’s also best at illustrating the points I’d like to make:
The team that is the Democratic Party favors proportional delegation, and that’s true by the time we get to Arizona. Delegates are awarded according to the results in each congressional district, with a bonus given to the person who wins the state, and under those rules Clinton is going to take home a very large majority of the delegates. So large, in fact, that by the time all the votes are counted in all the states tonight and the delegates are apportioned under the rules of each state, she will almost certainly end up winning more delegates than Bernie even though he won more states. But more on that later, because the results wont be in until well past when I’m in bed.
On the Republican side we have a “winner-take-all” primary. Trump won, but… You knew there was a but coming, right?
OK, let’s really dig into this here, because there are a few really important things that you need to understand about the way delegates are actually selected. In the interest of time I’m going to oversimplify a bit here, and if you haven’t read my previous post about how parties are like baseball teams you really should do that first. But here goes:
Journalists and pundits talk about primaries and caucuses as if they are the events that determine delegate selection, but that simply is not true. Each state party has its own set of rules, but for tonight let’s focus on Arizona. The national Republican Party has decided that the Arizona Republican Party will get to send 58 delegates to its national convention in July. Under the rules adopted by the state party, all of those delegate arrive to the convention pledged to vote on the first ballot for the candidate that won the state, and based on the tonight’s that is Donald Trump. Simple, right? Not so fast.
Because tonight’s primary didn’t actually select any delegates. Delegates are selected by the party, not the voters, at Legislative District and County Conventions over the next few weeks. Those delegates then attend a state convention at the end of April, at which point they choose the 58 people who will attend the convention. And these people aren’t random people – they are the individuals within the party who have the most invested in that party, the ones who have devoted their lives to building the Republican Party both in Arizona and around the nation. They no doubt have a loyalty to a specific candidate, but they also have a loyalty to their party, and when they eventually get to the national convention and are asked to cast their vote, they are going to do whatever they as individuals believe is best for themselves, their party, and sometimes even their nation.
But wait, will they? Maybe not. You see, the national party has its own rules, and like all rules they are neither self-enforcing nor universally enforced. I don’t want to go into all of the details of these rules, so in the interest of time I’m going to over-simplify things again and break them into two categories. In the first category are the rules adopted by each convention. Those rules have not been written, so there’s plenty of time to get into them later. In the second category are the standing rules of the national Republican Party. Those rules carry over from election to election, and everyone involved – all of the state parties and all of the candidates – has agreed to abide by them in advance as part of the cost of participating in the election. Except, it turns out, not all of the state parties follow the rules they agreed to! In the past this hasn’t much mattered, because in the past the party has arrived at the convention untied around a single candidate who won an overwhelming majority of the delegates. With the exception of some really interesting games the Ron Paul people played last time around, there hasn’t been anyone interested in enforcing these rules, so the violations have gone almost entirely ignored, with challenges written off as the acts of “crazy Rona Paul people” who “won’t really belong in the party anyway.” But this time, three specific rules might matter, because there are plenty of people who might want to see them enforced:
First, under the standing rules of the national Republican Party, winner-take-all contests are forbidden. Second, under those standing rules, open primaries and caucuses are forbidden – all events must by rule be open to individuals who registered as members of the party prior to Election Day. Third, under those rules, all deleagates must arrive to the convention unbound, free to vote their conscience and to react to events that have taken place since their state’s contest was held. You can like those rules, hate those rules, but the rules wont care. They are what they are, and each has important implications for this race.
In the first and second cases, the party rules state that when a delegation is selected through a forbidden process, the credentials of the delegates can be challenged at the start of the convention. If the challenge is successful, those delegates will be barred from participating and replaced with alternates selected by the convention chairman (this year, by rule that will be Paul Ryan) who are then free to cast votes for anyone they choose, including candidates not on any of the state ballots. In the third case, the rules explicitly forbid states from sending delegations that have been bound to a specific candidate. This opens two distinct possibilities: first and most obviously, it means that by rule delegates can ignore the results of their state’s caucus or primary and vote for any candidate they wish; second, it opens another avenue by which a candidate, campaign, or party official could challenge the credentials of either an individual delegate or an entire slate of delegates.
Now let’s think through the results so far, not just of tonight but of the entire primary process. Donald Trump has been strong in open primary and winner-take-all states and weak in closed primaries and caucuses. Another way of saying that is that Donald Trump has been strong in states operating in clear violation of the standing rules of the party and weak in states in compliance with those rules.
Now comes the objection: “Look Alex, all this is nice and fine, but if Trump wins a majority of the delegates, there’s no way the party will steal the nomination from him. And even if he falls just a few delegates short, they aren’t crazy enough to not give it to him either. That would be suicide!”
But stop: who are “they”? There is only one “they” that matters. “They” are the delegates, the individuals chosen by state party organizations to represent their party at the national convention, or, assuming a successful credentials challenge, the alternates chosen from among other state party officials by national convention officials to replace the ones that have been excluded. And by the rule, those people are all free on an individual basis to vote for whomever they choose. There is no way to force them to vote one way or another. There is neither a way to force them to abide by the results of the election or ignore them. In fact, there’s no way to know for sure who they are going to vote for until they actually vote. They are free to change their minds at the last minute, or to say one thing and do another. The rules explicitly allow this, in fact! And that creates a massive collective action problem, one that can only be solved on an individual by individual basis, and one that under the current conditions is almost perfectly constructed to create chaos.
Because think of the two candidates who are going to enter the convention with the most delegates. One the one hand is Donald Trump, a one man party wrecking crew who has attracted support by attacking the party establishment. On the other is Ted Cruz, a man whose career in the Senate has been defined by his eagerness to ignore norms and traditions when they get in the way of advancing his own self-interest. Can you imagine either of these men setting aside their shot at the nomination to do what’s in the best interest of a party they’ve never once demonstrated any loyalty to? Literally nothing in the history of either suggests tha outcome. Both are precisely the sort of men who have found success by pushing rules to their limit in the pursuit of personal success. What about either of them makes you think that either will be shy about using these long-standing but largely ignored rules to their personal advantage once we reach the convention? Do you think math is going to stop them?
So even if Trump appears to have gathered up a majority of the delegates, you will want to watch this convention closely, because until all of the delegates have been credentialed and all of the individual votes have been cast, no one has any idea what it going to happen. Set aside all of your preconceptions about the way things are “supposed” to work. Pay attention to the rules as they currently stand. The rules matter. So long as it is in someone’s self-interest to make sure the rules are enforced – and this year, there will be a room full of someone’s who want to see that – the rules ALWAYS matter.
Oh, and you know what? I didn’t even go into the processes by which the delegates are selected at the district and country conventions! Those processes matter just as much as these, and we’ve already got pretty solid evidence from Georgia and a few other states that Ted Cruz is using the rules to lock up delegates that were “supposed” to go to Donald Trump. Not “stealing” them, mind you, but using the rules as they exist to see to it that the delegates are his people rather than Trump’s. And Trump, meanwhile, seems to have neither the plan nor the people necessary to counter this.
Which, yeah…that’s why I had to start blogging again. Parties matter. Rules matter. Institutions matter. Love them or hate them, you ignore them at your peril. More, much more, on all this later.