Party rules say you need a majority of delegates, not a plurality.
Donald Trump may pile up more than enough delegates in the primaries to make his GOP presidential nomination this summer a formality. But what if he doesn’t? Mr. Trump, Ted Cruz and their media mouthpieces are claiming it would be political theft to choose the nominee at a contested convention. These timid souls need an education in party rules, political history and muscular democracy.
The Republican Party’s rules say a candidate needs the votes of 1,237 of the 2,472 delegates at the July convention in Cleveland to win the nomination. They don’t say all one needs is a plurality, or to have won the most primaries. There is no moral right to the nomination because a candidate wins 40%, or even 49%, of the delegates. He needs a majority, and the 1,237 number is no secret.
Parties set this public requirement because they exist to win elections, and a nominating majority is the best indicator of the rough consensus necessary to unite the party behind the winner. A candidate who can’t put together a majority of delegates is unlikely to unite the party and is probably a loser in November.
Before the primary system became the norm in the decades after World War II, party nominees were always chosen at the convention. But even in the primary era, a convention fight has been possible.
As recently as 1976, Gerald Ford came into the convention with more delegates than Ronald Reagan, who offered the vice presidency to Senator Richard Schweiker to turn the Pennsylvania delegation his way. The influential Drew Lewis chose to honor his pledge to Ford, kept the Pennsylvania delegation in line, and denied Reagan the nomination.
Democrats had to go three rounds of balloting in 1952 to produce Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson as their nominee. In 1956 Democrats staged a floor flight over which of more than a dozen candidates to nominate for vice president. Estes Kefauver won. And in 1980 there was a short-lived effort at the Democratic convention to change the rules to help Ted Kennedy catch Jimmy Carter, who had lost nearly every late primary to the Massachusetts Senator.
With this history in mind, each party continues to have rules for how long delegates are pledged to a candidate. Under the GOP rules, about 1,700 delegates out of 2,472 (69%) are bound in the first ballot to vote for the candidate for whom they are pledged—usually by a primary or caucus result. The 31% who are unbound come from states that don’t hold binding presidential preference contests, or from states that allow some of their delegates to remain uncommitted.
If the first ballot doesn’t produce a majority, nearly 80% of the delegates then become free to vote for the nominee of their choice on the second ballot. By the third ballot, 89.4% are free to choose. This gradual liberation is designed to prevent a stalemate and let the delegates work their will to coalesce eventually around the best nominee. This isn’t cheating or “stealing the nomination.” It’s how the process is supposed to work.
Ah, but aren’t the delegates part of the “establishment”? If by establishment you mean stalwart party members in the provinces, then yes. They are often the rank-and-file GOPers who run state and local party operations. But others are activists chosen to become delegates by the various candidates.
It’s true that three delegates from each state are Republican National Committee members. But the rules this year require nearly all of those RNC members to vote in the first ballot for the candidate who won the most at-large votes in a state primary or caucus. So those RNC members, a small minority of delegates, are expressing the will of the voters in the first go-round.
The premature protests by Messrs Cruz and Trump are entirely self-serving. Both men think they have a good chance to win a plurality of delegates but can’t be sure they’ll get all the way to 1,237. They want to cry havoc in advance so party members will shrink in fear of a GOP breakup if there’s a nominating fight at the convention.
These candidates and Republicans generally should toughen up. If Messrs. Trump or Cruz couldn’t sway a majority at the convention, it would be because they couldn’t convince their fellow Republicans that they have the best chance of winning. Every candidate entered the race knowing the rules, and every candidate has an equal opportunity to exploit them. Mr. Trump certainly has used the accelerated primary calendar to his advantage, racking up a delegate lead before he’s been subject to any real scrutiny.
It’s always possible that a losing Mr. Trump would bolt the GOP and run as a third-party candidate or urge his supporters to boycott in November. But the same might happen in reverse if Mr. Trump becomes the nominee despite what is growing opposition from traditional Republicans. If the businessman can’t rally a majority at the convention, then he can’t unite the GOP enough to beat Hillary Clinton.
Many primaries have yet to be held, and the odds are that the voters will give one candidate a clear majority before Cleveland. But if they don’t, the voters themselves will have set the stage for the convention fight. The event could a great education in party democracy, and it certainly would do better in the ratings than the usual four-day infomercial.