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In Defense of the Republicans' Nomination Rules

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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After his loss in Wisconsin Tuesday night, it's increasingly likely that Donald Trump could wind up with a plurality of delegates and votes in the primaries and caucuses. But then he could fall short of the required majority of 1,237 delegates and lose the nomination after failing to sway enough uncommitted delegates to get over the top. If so, questions are going to be raised about whether the Republican nomination system really is democratic.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

It’s even plausible (though still fairly unlikely) that the convention could deadlock and eventually anoint a candidate who got drubbed in the primaries, or even one who sat out the contests altogether. 

Trump may find that unfair -- after Wisconsin, his campaign released a statement calling Cruz a “Trojan horse” who is “being used by the party bosses to steal the nomination" -- but such an outcome would be democratic. Parties have no obligation to include rank-and-file voters in their internal deliberations. They are private organizations, and it’s up to them to decide how they want to choose their nominees and otherwise govern themselves.

However, this is acceptable only if the parties are permeable: They must allow new members to join and have an opportunity to exercise influence within the party. Parties make practicing real politics possible for ordinary people in very large democracies.

It simply doesn't matter (democratically speaking) what procedures are used to make party decisions, including nominations, as long as all party actors, including new ones, can have a role. 

That’s the reason I’ve defended the Democrats' practice of including unpledged “superdelegates” -- politicians and formal party officials. If Democrats want to give those party actors extra weight at the convention, that’s their business. Indeed: Across world democracies, primary elections are the unusual step in choosing candidates.

Having convention delegates make the final decision is no more undemocratic than establishing a majority-winner rule, or (once such a rule is in place) to defeat a plurality winner if the delegates from the other candidates and independent delegates choose to form a majority coalition to defeat the plurality winner. As Sean Trende pointed out, those are the rules, and all candidates knew them.

One can argue that first-choice preferences should be all that matters, and Trump apparently enjoys more of that kind of support among voters than anyone else. But one also can argue that full ranked preferences (second choices, third choices, and so on) matter, too. Suppose that one candidate in a multi-candidate field is the first choice of 40 percent of the party but hated by everyone else, while another candidate is first choice of only 30 percent and well-liked by everyone. In that situation, different rules will yield different winners -- and none of them is necessarily the "correct" result.

Given that, it seems perfectly democratic to have a sequential system of primaries and caucuses, with convention delegates at the end of the line to implement the decision of the voters -- and to make a decision if the voters haven’t.

Nonetheless, I have two concerns about the Republican process and democracy. Both have to do with the actual selection of delegates, which on the Republican side is partially separated from the allocation of delegates. That is, delegates are bound to vote for candidates (at least on the first ballot at the convention) based on the results of primaries and caucuses, but the delegates themselves are selected in a variety of ways ranging from open caucuses to designation by formal party committees. The Democrats do things differently; they allow candidates to “slate” their delegates, so the candidates can pick their most enthusiastic supporters to fill those slots.

The first problem with the Republican system is that it’s not clear to what extent the delegate selection process is open to new members. For example, in South Carolina, only people who were at last year’s Republican state convention are eligible to serve as national delegates this year. That doesn't sound very welcoming to new influences. In states where the state Republican committee selects the delegates, new party actors may be similarly shut out. The delegate selection procedures do not appear to be well-publicized, which itself can indicate a problem. Overall, there's reason for concern.

The second problem has to do with democratic norms. Parties do not need to hold primaries -- most did not before 1972, and none did in the 19th century. But once they do, it seems odd that those primaries are advertised -- by the party -- as choosing the nominee, if in fact separate delegate selection means primaries don’t necessarily determine the nomination.

Until now, a strong norm of deference to the primary results has been respected by the delegates. But over the last several years the Republican Party has not been very respectful of democratic norms on everything from redistricting to filibusters to holding hearings on Supreme Court nominees, so it’s easy to imagine that this norm won’t hold, either.

All in all, I think the Republican process, and the Democratic one, are sufficiently democratic. At least pending any further information about the delegate selection method, and exactly how difficult it might be for ordinary citizens to get involved. But the disconnect between delegate allocation and delegate selection does look weird.

  1. Especially in the U.S., with relatively decentralized parties and numerous meaningful elective offices. Changing the direction of the national Republican Party is a daunting task, as it should be -- but influencing the agenda of Republican candidates for school boards or state legislative seats is a lot easier, and it can build from there.

  2. My View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru argued for an “instant runoff” system at the convention, with each delegate submitting a ballot of ranked preferences. If no candidate received a majority, the last-place candidate would be eliminated, with his or her supporters going to their second-choice preference, and so on, until a majority was reached. The system has the virtue of preventing an endless, ugly deadlock. But there’s no reason to believe it’s necessarily fairer or more democratic than multiple ballots which only consider first choices, allowing for deliberation and bargaining between each round of voting.

  3. Nor is it a problem that voters appear to be heavily influenced by decisions of party actors, who direct resources to favored candidates. Again, the input from voters is voluntary in nominations.

  4. So why do they hold primaries? Partially it's an accident of history -- state legislatures, often under Democratic majorities, expanded presidential primaries in the 1970s in response to Democratic Party reforms, and Republicans were stuck with them. Partially primaries are used to gather evidence about the candidates. And the problems showing up this year never really arose before -- party-chosen delegates were never confronted with a voter-supported candidate like Donald Trump who the party found unacceptable. 

  5. The possibility that delegates would be disloyal to the candidate they were allocated to was the reason Republicans proposed the rule for this cycle that delegates are bound to that candidate, at least on the first ballot. However, that rule could easily be changed either by the convention Rules Committee or by the full convention. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net