Are Voters Relevant in the Primary Election?

The answer to the title question is….well, yes and no. Since the Republican primary election is getting all the attention this year because of the potential open (contested) convention, and because this is a rather complex topic, I will limit this post to that contest. At the risk of oversimplifying the primary delegate controversy, I will define the delegates’ obligations to the voters in four general categories of states.

In my opinion, the only Republican voters who have complete determination of whom their delegates vote for are those who vote in proportional allocation states. That is, their state party rules require all of their delegates to vote at least the first convention ballot in proportion to the primary election results. For example, last month, North Carolina voted 40% for Trump, 37% for Cruz, 13% for Kasich, 8% for Rubio, and 1% for other. Their 72 delegates were allocated 29 for Trump, 27 for Cruz, 9 for Kasich, 6 for Rubio, and 1 for other–a simple alignment of delegates according to percentage of votes. This is as fair as it gets in the primary delegate process. But, only 18 states and D.C. allocate proportionally.

The opposite extreme is the winner-take-all allocation. Recently in Ohio, it was Kasich 47%, Trump 36%, Cruz 13%, Rubio 3%, and other 1%. According to Ohio’s rules, Kasich got all of the state’s 66 delegates, although one could argue he only earned 31 (47% of 66). All voters had the opportunity to try to get a majority for their candidate, but only the Kasich voters made any difference–and Kasich didn’t even have a majority of votes. So, did most of Ohio’s voters (53%) and their candidates get cheated? Not really. The majority played the game according to their state party’s rules and just didn’t win anything for their candidate. These states view the presidential primary like any other state race–only one candidate can win. Eight states have chosen winner-take-all rules.

Many states have adopted what is commonly called hybrid rules which is, as the name implies, a combination of proportional and winner-take-all rules. The specifics of these rules vary so widely among states that it would be impossible to break them all down here. An example is Pennsylvania which will go to the polls in a few days to vote for their presidential preference. Then they will vote for 54 delegates by name. These 54 delegates are unbound. Only the remaining 17 delegates (total of 71) will be bound proportionally according to the vote percentages. So, most of the votes will go to delegates the voters have no control over rather than candidates. There are 21 hybrid rules states.

The states where voters have the least say in who they prefer for their nominee are those with rules that all delegates are unbound to any particular candidate. These states are few, but are causing much consternation and accusations of rigging the system this year. A case in point is the Trump allegation that Cruz was “stealing” delegates from him in Colorado. Colorado’s rules call for no primary or caucus. Candidates for delegates compete at the Congressional district party level for a total of 37 unbound delegate positions. The state party committees choose the delegates. Presidential candidates can lobby individual delegates for their future vote at the convention. This is what Cruz did and supposedly obtained the support of all 37 unbound delegates. The other candidates either didn’t understand the rules or chose not to take the time to lobby the delegates. A similar thing happened in the hybrid state of Louisiana where Trump won the plurality of votes, but Cruz swayed some unbound delegates to effectively give him the majority. Only three states send all their delegates (94 total) to the national convention unbound.

So, a good argument could be made that Republican voters in almost two-thirds of the states have limited influence on the ultimate selection of their party’s candidate to run in the general election. Keep in mind that only in the last few decades have voters had any involvement in the process. For two centuries, our nation’s presidential candidates were selected by state party leaders deciding in regional committees who would travel by horse and wagon or later by train to a national convention to decide on a candidate. But, with modern transportation and technology, we should have a more democratic process for electing party candidates.

Lest we conclude, though, that we should just have a nationwide, same-day, popular primary election like the general election, consider that we will need to keep the following advantages of the present process:

  • Narrows the field over an extended time period as unsuccessful candidates drop out (think 17 candidates in a one-time national election)
  • Allows candidates to concentrate on a few states at a time to communicate his or her message
  • Permits a lesser-known, low-budget candidate to gain traction on a more localized level playing field
  • Provides a process that would not require a nationwide runoff election if no candidate has a majority

The best primary process would seem to be for all states to agree on a national standard of all delegates proportionally allocated and bound to the candidates according to the election results of their state. A national convention without a majority candidate could have multiple ballot rounds with the bottom candidate eliminated each round. Only the eliminated candidate’s delegates would then be unbound to vote for one of the remaining candidates until one reached the majority.

This year, however, it is what it is, and no candidate has the right to complain about the rules. The rules were in place when they signed on for this ride. If a candidate doesn’t have a campaign organization that knows the rules, he or she suffers the consequences. If the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl is the result of a trick play that is allowed by the referees, the defense should have been watching better. Touchdown stands!

Also, if a candidate arrives at the convention without a majority, he or she doesn’t deserve the nomination until they have a majority. The majority of voters will have voted for other candidates for a reason, and they deserve to have their states’ delegates carry out their responsibility. It’s not the best of processes, and we probably need to tweak it. But, it is equally cumbersome for each candidate. Each one has a fair shot at becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States.




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