Tonight’s Election Results

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.

While We Await The Results…

So how to begin?  Well…I had said that I wouldn’t do a kick-off post, but given how late the returns are going to be tonight, I might as well spend some time explaining my understanding of political parties. So let’s do this with an analogy. It wont be perfect – no analogy is – but it’s a good starting point for a discussion, so here goes:

Political parties in the United States are like sports teams in a professional league. To paraphrase something a wise man once said, “you play to win the game,” and that’s just as true in professional sports as it is in politics. But there’s more to it than that, right? Sports teams exist as organizations and institutions to market themselves and their team to fans. Each team has its own stars and its own traditions, and the team’s management works hard to make sure the fans support them all. Fans become heavily invested in their team’s performance, and many of them become so invested that they spend their days reading about their team on news sites and blogs and listening to people argue about them on talk radio and television.

One of the interesting features of American professional sports leagues is that although the teams share a common set of rules of play, they are given tremendous flexibility in how they operate their clubs, how they pursue their goals, how they design the stadiums in which the games are played, and a wide variety of other aspects of their operations. It’s almost baseball season, and I’m a die-hard NYY fan, so let’s use that sport and its stadiums to illustrate this. The teams in the MLB have all agreed to a set of guidelines for their stadiums, but within those guidelines teams can get very creative. Some stadiums are designed for left-handed hitters, other are designed for right-handed pitchers, and one even has a giant green wall that requires a hitter to deliver a moonshot in order to hit a home run. But the teams don’t have unlimited flexibility – when the clubs play one another, neutral umpires are called in and everyone plays by a common set of rules. You can’t, for example, decide that a walk in your stadium requires only three balls or that a game only has eight innings. Some things just aren’t allowed.

Now think about the way the baseball season works. First, the teams gather in a variety of locations to begin their training. Although there are exhibition games during the spring, most of camp is spent with each team’s players training and practicing at their team’s individual facilities. Older players are working themselves back into shape, and younger players are fighting for one of the few open spots on the team. How, when, and where those camps operate are entirely up to each individual team, and even when two teams come together to play an exhibition, the rules of the regular season don’t apply. The number of innings, the size of the teams, and all manner of other things operate under different sets of rules than the regular season, and sometimes those rules even change from exhibition to exhibition. But once the regular season gets underway, things change. Everyone plays by the same set of rules, and neutral umpires – ones that work for the league rather than for individual clubs – call the balls and strikes and enforce the rules. There are mechanisms in place that teams can use to challenge the calls on the field, but only in certain circumstances, and once a final call has been made everyone has agreed in advance to live with it. At the end of the season, one team and only one team is crowned the champion.

So let’s play the analogy out. Political parties are teams that are organized to win elections. They exist to do other things as well – I’ll have much more to say about those things over the coming weeks and months – but winning is their primary purpose. Our presidential elections have two phases: the primaries and the general. The primaries are like Spring Training. Each team meets on its own to get ready for the general election, and as a part of that process it holds a series of exhibitions that we call primaries and caucuses. Some of the candidates and party officials that show up for these exhibitions are well known throughout the party and with the general public at large, but others are newbies who are trying to break in and get noticed for the first time. Each party holds a number of exhibitions – the parties and caucuses in each state – and the rules often vary from event to event. Some of the events are open to the general public – those are open primaries – but others are more limited – closed primaries and caucuses. However each event operates, the rules of each contest are determined by the teams themselves operating within a set of guidelines set out by the MLB.

At the end of the primary season, each party gathers together its most important professionals – the party officials that serve as delegates to the convention – to make a final determination about who will make the team. And here is one of the key points: this is still the exhibition season, so it is up to each team to make this determination on its own in accord with its own rules and values based solely on what its members believes to be in their shared best interest. The parties are preparing to engage in a small-d democratic contest, but because that season has not yet begun, they do not yet have to follow the small-d democratic rules of the general election. I expect I will continue to make this point over and over again over the coming months because it is very important! The purpose of primary season is for the people who make up the party to decide who is best positioned to help them win in November. That is what matters. That is the ONLY thing that matters. And because this is not yet the small-d democratic democratic portion of the season, they do not have to follow small-d democratic rules while making this decision!

Because again: parties exist to win elections, and given that fact, the purpose of the nominating convention is to pick the candidate that everyone on the team believes would make the best candidate. Return to baseball for a minute: you could’ve objected to the Yankess picking Derek Jeter as their captain if you had wanted to – although to be frank if you had WTF?!? – but that was a decision that only the Yankess players, coaches, and management could make. You could’ve objected until you were blue in the face, but they were not under any obligation at all to listen to you or to heed your advice. In the same way, you can object to the manner in which the parties choose their candidates, but unless you are an active, committed member of the party – and believe it or not that’s a realitvely easy thing to become, but more on that later – you don’t actually get a say. Sure thing, you get a “vote” in the primary, but you don’t get to go to the convention any more than you get to visit the locker room before the first game, so under the rules by which the parties operate, the party doesn’t have to honor your vote. That’s just not how this works, and if you ask me, it absolutely should not be. You have every right to participate in the party process and, if you so choose, to fight to alter the rules by which they operate, but if you aren’t willing to actively participate, I don’t see any reason at all why you should get a say in what a party is or does. Parties are extra-constitutional organizations, so no matter how much you might wish otherwise…wait…More on that later… Back to baseball.

The general election is like the regular season. The teams play by a set of rules determined by an institution external to them, and neutral umpires are called in to make sure everything is run in a fair way. Sure, some of the umpires aren’t actually neutral – some Secretaries of State are actually open partisans; see, for example, Florida in 2000 – but we nevertheless expect that these people will operate according to a set of shared, formal and informal rules that have been enshrined into laws at both the federal and state levels. At the end of the election process, one candidate is named the winner under those rules, unless the rules have been violated or there is a tie, in which case the rules require congress to get involved.

OK….I could go on like this, but I hope you’ve got the idea. And anyways, where it gets interesting is in the places the analogy breaks down. And on that note, let’s see how those parties are doing tonight!