In an opinion editorial published in this morning’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump unleashes a blistering critique of the presidential nomination process, excoriating the party establishment for “defending a system that for decades has served the interest of political parties at the expense of the people.” The editorial embodies the anti-establishment flavor of Mr. Trump’s campaign as it rails against a a “rigged delegate-selection process” while pledging to seek future reforms which maximize “transparency,” “representation,” and “voter participation” in the GOP’s nomination procedures.
Mr. Trump’s words come on the heels of a major setback for him in Colorado’s caucuses last weekend, where Senator Ted Cruz swept every delegate and affirmed the superiority of his well-organized national campaign. The massive loss was full of blunders for the Trump campaign, which printed a delegate slate full of errors and misdirected the votes of many Trump supporters at the state convention. But for Mr. Trump, poor preparation had little to do with his loss. On Monday, the New York businessman took to Twitter to air his grievances, calling the Colorado caucus process “totally unfair” and accusing Ted Cruz of bribing delegates with “all sorts of goodies” in order to gain an advantage.1 In Mr. Trump’s estimation, the corrupt election system dominated by party elites—not his own campaign team’s failure to understand and organize for the Colorado caucus process—should bear the blame for his poor showing there.
To evaluate this claim, I will examine the Colorado caucus process in the context of Mr. Trump’s complaints, focusing upon the history and the political justifications which undergird the changes made to the Colorado process last year.
The recent history of the Colorado caucuses
The establishment wins in 2012
In 2012, former Republican senator Rick Santorum won the Colorado caucuses, defeating Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who at the time was the preferred candidate of the so-called “party establishment,” by nearly six points. Mr. Santorum’s victory came as a surprise, particularly in light of the fact that Mr. Romney had won the state’s caucuses handily back in 2008 with over three-fifths of the vote.
Yet when it came time for Colorado’s delegates to cast their ballots in the 2012 Republican National Convention, not a single vote was cast for Mr. Santorum. Instead, because the delegates selected for the national convention were not bound by the vote in the precinct caucuses, Mitt Romney received the support of most of the state’s delegation, with the remainder simply refusing to participate. Many party activists and grassroots conservatives in Colorado felt betrayed by this sleight-of-hand, which they viewed as an effort by the Republican Party establishment to force its candidate of choice onto the voters.
Taking back control in 2016
With the rise of Jeb Bush in the early moments of the presidential primary process last year, Republican Party grassroots activists in Colorado became deeply concerned. As the National Review recalled early this week, many conservatives were worried about a repeat of 2012, where Colorado’s state delegation was press-ganged into supporting Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention. At the same time, a binding straw poll—though an improvement over the non-binding presidential preference vote which permitted Mr. Romney to win a delegate majority in spite of losing the state—would favor a well-funded establishment candidate, who could simply spend a few million dollars in the state to buy up advertising and build a traditional ground campaign in lieu of actually investing time and energy to reach out to grassroots conservatives.
For these reasons, party activists pushed for the abandonment of the precinct straw poll in favor of the direct election of delegates by voters in precinct caucuses, a move which gave Republicans the opportunity to elect grassroots conservatives in their communities as delegates to the county caucuses. These county caucuses would then choose delegates for the congressional-district and state assemblies, at which the final delegates for the national convention would be chosen. Unlike in 2012, all of the delegates selected for the national convention are bound to the presidential candidate for whom they have stated a preference, and each delegate’s preference is known to the caucus assemblies prior to the final vote.
The net effect of creating this complex system is two-fold. First, the elimination of the precinct straw poll, which enabled Coloradans to cast a vote for the presidential candidate of their preference, in favor of precinct caucus elections of county delegates ensures that passionate grassroots conservatives, rather than representatives of the best-funded campaign organization, would be favored for election as delegates to the county, state, and congressional-district assemblies. Had such a system existed back in 2012, Rick Santorum likely would have won significant majorities among the county convention delegations, which then could have assured him at least a majority of the state’s delegation at the Republican National Convention.
Second, by binding the delegates to the presidential candidate of their preference at the conclusion of this lengthy process, the state party rules safeguard against efforts by an establishment candidate to woo the state’s delegates and subvert the will of the conservative grassroots activists who participated in the precinct caucuses and organized for the candidate who best represents their views.
Evaluating Trump’s claims about Colorado
Claim #1: “[T]he people of Colorado were not able to cast their ballots to say which nominee they preferred.”
Mr. Trump’s careful wording here is technically correct. Because the presidential preference poll was abandoned, Republican voters in Colorado could not vote for any of the presidential candidates by name.
That said, the alternative was not, as Mr. Trump seems to imply, the coronation of Mr. Cruz by Republican party elites. Though there was no presidential preference poll, Colorado voters participated in precinct caucuses to directly elect delegates—each of whom expressed a particular candidate preference—to the county assemblies, which in turn chose the makeup of the congressional-district and state conventions which would select the official national convention delegates. Therefore, in practice, the Colorado caucuses did permit voters to cast ballots for the nominee of their preference through the direct election of county delegates.
Claim #2: The delegate selection process in Colorado was “rigged” and “totally unfair.”
Complicated, perhaps. Rigged? Not at all.
The rules of the GOP Colorado caucuses are readily available online. You can read the rules here. Though they are complex, they are not difficult to grasp, and the rules clearly state how the process operates. And with respect to fairness, the mechanics of the caucuses were completely aboveboard. The vigorous debate within the state party last August about dealing away with the presidential preference poll occurred in full view of the public and culminated in a unanimous decision from the Colorado Republican Party’s executive committee to change the process to its current form. Mr. Trump had just as much time as all of the other candidates to prepare a campaign strategy that would succeed, and he was more than capable of posting a decent showing there had he made an effort to organize in the state. But no such effort was expended, and Mr. Trump lost.
Is there a better alternative to the current system?
Turning from Donald Trump’s specific criticisms of the Colorado caucuses, I wonder what sort of primary election process he would propose to replace the unrepresentative and opaque system which he claims we have now.
Mr. Trump appears to desire a simpler system which rewards candidates by proportion to their support in presidential preference elections. If a candidate has “by far the most delegates and many millions more votes than anyone else,” as the businessman tweeted last Friday, he or she should no longer have to “fight” for the nomination. In response to a debate question on the subject last month, Mr. Trump stated that “whoever gets the most delegates should win.”
These comments seem to support the adoption of a national proportional primary system, a process similar to the one which the Democratic Party currently uses. If a candidate wins a certain percent of the vote in a proportional primary, she should receive roughly that same percentage of the delegates from her victory. This sort of system is simple and fair, and I am not opposed to it.
However, Mr. Trump’s contention that the person with only a plurality—not a majority—of the delegates should be awarded the nomination anyway sets a dangerous precedent. A fractured nomination contest with multiple contenders could permit a fringe candidate with minority support to become the party’s representative in the general election, a development which would disenfranchise a majority of the party’s members and create a scenario in which one of the fundamental obligations of the political party—to tie its representatives to a distinct philosophical framework—would be left unfulfilled. It is in these situations, where the democratic process is unable to yield a decisive majority consensus, that political party leaders are so important to have. If Mr. Trump is unable to attain a majority of delegates—or, for that matter, a majority of the popular vote—there is no opportunity to turn back the clock and retry the election until he or another candidate can convince a majority of Republican voters that he is the best choice available to them. In the absence of time travel or do-overs, the delegates at the Republican National Convention must have the ultimate say if a candidate fails to demonstrate the evidence of consensus which a majority represents.
Mr. Trump did not substantiate this latter claim, and I was unable to find any evidence for it myself. ^
A version of this article originally appeared in the Claremont Independent, an independent journal of campus affairs and political thought serving the colleges of the Claremont Consortium.