Last week Donald Trump complained that he’s losing delegates at state party conventions after earlier winning the states. “This is supposed to be America, a free America,” said Trump. “You know, welcome to the Republican Party. What’s going on in the Republican Party is a disgrace. I have so many more votes and so many more delegates. And, frankly, whoever at the end, whoever has the most votes and the most delegates should be the nominee.”
No, frankly, that’s not the way it works. If Trump knew anything about party politics he would know better.
Let me give you some personal insight into how the delegate sausage is made.
Before I got into broadcast journalism sixteen years ago, I was a political activist. I grew up volunteering for a variety of Republican candidates, inspired by then-candidate Ronald Reagan. At the age of 22 I was elected the youngest GOP county chairman in the country, and in 1992 I was elected to be a Delegate to the Republican National Convention in Houston.
(Let me emphasize here that when I left politics sixteen years ago I re-registered as an Independent, which I have been ever since. My main enjoyment is politics wasn’t ideological, it was to outwit and better organize. And where I grew up, the Republican Party was the the only game in town. I write about my transition from politics to journalism at length in my book Front Row Seat at the Circus.)
From my personal experience I can tell you becoming a delegate to a national political convention is like winning the political lottery. There are so few slots for so many egos. And if you’re just an “ordinary” voter, sadly the process is designed (some may say rigged) to prevent you from ever having a seat on the convention floor.
In Arizona, like many states, delegates to the national convention are not chosen on the day of the presidential primary. Yes, Donald Trump just won the Arizona primary by a huge margin. That’s nice for him. But any party activist will say privately, “who cares?” The candidates for delegates to the national convention were not on the ballot with him and must still be chosen later at the state GOP convention. Those delegates may, or may not, like Trump and want to be loyal to him.
Yes, there is a rule that all delegates from Arizona are “committed” to vote for Trump on the first ballot at the national convention. But is it enforced? Maybe, maybe not. In 2012 three Arizona delegates voted for Ron Paul instead of Mitt Romney on the first ballot. They were not punished in any way. The rules are designed to be slippery, this is precinct politics at its best (or worst) after all.
If you’re new to the political process (hello Trump and Sanders supporters!) I’m guessing your eyes have probably glazed over by now. How can a candidate overwhelmingly win the popular vote in a primary but not have a guarantee of a majority of delegates? Welcome to the world of political parties!
Let’s back up a second.
I first met George Bush in 1987 when he was Vice President. By 1988 I was on the state GOP executive committee and supported him for the GOP nomination. As a college student, I tried to become a Bush delegate to the national convention in New Orleans that year, but fell one vote short at the state convention. It was an important lesson for me in precinct organizing. If you fail to do the grassroot work and arrive at a meeting outnumbered you lose. It’s really simple math. I was determined not to make that mistake again. Four years later, now a county chairman in control of the rules and organization, I would make sure our entire slate from the county won. And we did, easily.
In my county, the gigantic rift was not between the candidates – George Bush and Pat Buchanan – but rather local personalities. Let me repeat this because I think it’s common across the country: We had two groups of Republicans in our county battling each other based on nothing but personalities. Absolutely true. Our fight to win the county delegates was an internal power struggle not on behalf of any candidates or anything to do with ideology.
As the chairman I had organized the elected precinct workers and made sure they were loyal to the slate we were running. Before the night started I correctly predicted what the final vote total would be.
I didn’t say learning about how the political sausage is made would be easy!
The Bush campaign called me the day after the county meeting and invited me to be on the “official” Bush slate for delegate at the state convention. Had I not been involved in the process and learned a few things along the way, I would have never been one of the 33 individuals chosen.
Being on a candidates “official” slate is imperative. A lot of people show up at the state convention and want to be a delegate. The only way the campaigns can control who actually attends the national convention is to push their own delegate slate. If you get to a state convention and are running as only as a “good citizen” you’ll lose.
A state convention becomes a huge battle between the presidential campaigns and the battle of the slates. The team with the best understanding – and control – of the party process usually comes out on top.
In Arizona, the national delegates are elected either from congressional districts or from the general floor. All presidential campaigns at this point know how many supporters they have in each congressional district and the overall number. I was elected overwhelmingly, along with two others, from my congressional district because the Bush slate had the numbers.
The Bush team counted on me, as the county chairman, to “whip” my delegates into voting for the entire slate. It’s a bit like herding cats. “Can I vote for this person because I know them?” I would be asked by a delegate not quite sure about the process. “Absolutely not! That could break our slate if you do that!” I would respond. The day can be tough because some friends, many of whom had been involved in party politics for a long time, had not made the official slate. So they run against it, some on alternative slates, which really upsets the presidential campaigns. It almost never works, but it can create some tense and difficult moments among friends.
Typically the campaigns will put their biggest names – governor, senators, congressmen, celebrities – on a slate to be voted on by the entire floor. Name ID can help break a slate. For instance, there were only a few Buchanan candidates who busted the Bush slate in 1992, including the controversial former governor Evan Mecham. It’s very difficult for campaigns to control everyone voting a straight slate, even when you explain how important it is in order to win every delegate.
I should make clear that when a campaign trusts you to be on their slate, you do have a sense of loyalty to it. Thus why if Trump falls short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the nominee, it will be the job of the majority of delegates who didn’t vote for him to unite behind an alternative candidate like Paul Ryan.
The key thing to remember from all of this is that the delegates who are elected to the state convention are not bound to the candidate who won the primary in any way. The delegates chosen to attend the national convention may have won on a certain candidates slate, but they are not necessarily bound either. Some states actually send “uncommitted” delegates who can make their decision late.
The Cruz campaign seems to have a much better understanding of how this all works. They are effectively peeling away delegate spots from Trump.
Instead of complaining about the process, the Trump campaign had better kick it into high gear, or the candidate who arrives in Cleveland with the most delegates, may find that means very little at all.