‘What’s Delegate Allocation vs. Delegate Selection?’: A GOP Nomination-Process Guru Answers All

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GOP Convention Concludes
Conventions aren't just simple parties this year. Photo: Alex Wong/2004 Getty Images

The one thing pretty much everyone understands about the Republican presidential nominating process is that, barring some unprecedented coup that retroactively changes the rules, Donald Trump wins the prize if he secures 1,237 delegate commitments (i.e., first-ballot votes) by the time the deal goes down in Cleveland in July. It’s the stuff happening now that might matter later if Trump doesn’t reach 1,237 that’s causing so much confusion.  

So I decided to consult the generally acknowledged expert on the presidential nominating contest, the University of Georgia’s Josh Putnam, proprietor of the authoritative Frontloading HQ website, to clear up a few key questions:

If you could get the news media to internalize one poorly understood fact about the Republican process between now and the convention, what would it be?
The problem in 2016 has been that everyone has had to learn on the fly the intricacies of the Republican nomination process to a depth that has not been required for a generation. Normally, the customary coverage revolves around early wins and losses and how that affects who remains in the field of candidates. If one candidate wins and keeps winning, then a presumptive nominee emerges quickly. Even if that does not happen as quickly — if the winnowing process is slower — then the mix of proportional and winner-take-all delegate-allocation rules on the Republican side tend to favor a front-runner or at the very least a candidate who wins more often than their competition. 

Historically, that method of allocating delegates has created enough distance between the delegate leader and the other candidates to force the most serious candidates from the race even before the leader gets to a majority of bound delegates. That has not been the case for Donald Trump in 2016.

Is this the stuff Donald Trump is screaming about?
It is, in part. Trump has done quite well in the allocation part of this process. His grievances have been not with the allocation part, but the near-parallel selection part.

What’s the difference between allocation and selection again?
The allocation side of the equation is about divvying up delegate slots to candidates based on the results in primaries and caucuses. Again, Trump has excelled in accumulating delegate slots whether in proportional states or winner-take-all ones. But the process to fill those delegate slots with actual people is almost completely divorced from the allocation process in the majority of states. Often that takes place even in primary states in a parallel caucus/convention process. The time demands of this tend to limit the pool of potential delegate candidates to a very small number of party regulars, elected officials, and grassroots activists within states. But the time commitment — having to attend precinct caucuses to get elected to county caucuses to get elected to district or state conventions — is only part of the reason the pool of delegate candidates is usually small. 

Another is that a presumptive nominee has typically emerged by the time the selection part of the process starts in earnest. That tends to be in April. Typically, a presumptive nominee has separated by then by, again, earning enough delegates to force the competition from the race. When that has happened in the past, it has meant that the fight to fill those delegate slots is more about who wants to go to the convention than about who they will support. In those scenarios, all or most of the delegates are going to vote for the presumptive nominee anyway. 

The 2016 cycle has broken the mold on that front. Trump built a lead in the delegate count, but was not significantly ahead to push all of the other potentially viable candidates from the race. Additionally, he was viewed either as a weak front-runner and/or a weak general-election candidate. Both provided ammunition to candidates looking for a reason to stay in and keep Trump under the 1,237 delegates the Republican nominee needs to clinch the 2016 nomination.  

So to be clear, if Donald Trump gets to 1,237 delegates, all the fighting over delegate selection and convention rules probably goes away.
That is not guaranteed, but it would make it all the harder for opponents to summon the political will to alter the rules in a way that produces a nominee other than someone who won the popular vote and the bound-delegate tally heading into the convention. 

Now, in terms of delegate selection, both you and Nate Silver have explained that only about a fourth of the delegates will be named by a process that gives candidates real control. Over half are chosen by local or state conventions. Is this a recipe for a coup by the Republican Establishment?
It could be. The early anecdotal evidence suggests that while the Trump forces are involved in local and state conventions, they are simply outnumbered — outnumbered by Cruz-aligned participants, party regulars, and others. There is a more unified opposition in the democratic elections taking place at these conventions than there are in the primaries and caucuses in which Trump has done well. 

Ah, so the state parties aren’t so much trying to screw over Trump on delegate selection as they are letting grassroots activists take control, and Trump’s relative lack of organization is handicapping him there. But again, he’s not losing first-ballot delegate votes except in the handful of states that allocate delegates without a primary or a caucus; he’s just losing votes on later ballots and maybe on procedural issues and the platform at the convention.
It is not necessarily about the state parties ceding any control. The processes to elect the national-convention delegates are just as democratic as the primary and caucus process that allocates bound delegate slots to candidates. The problem for the Trump campaign is that those selection votes have gone against him. The smaller electorate, if one wants to call them that, is less favorable to Trump than the larger primary electorate. 

No, this will not necessarily hurt Trump on the first ballot. Regardless of the selection process, most delegates are locked into the candidates to whom they are bound through at least the first ballot in most cases. In the event that Trump cannot get to 1,237, then more delegates becoming unbound and free to vote for their preference makes the current selection process key. 

I guess we should discuss what might be called the convention “nuclear option”: unbinding the delegates currently required to vote for a particular candidate on the first or subsequent ballots. Do you figure there’s any chance of an anti-Trump or anti-Trump/anti-Cruz push to unbind delegates (or those not bound by state law) on the first ballot? In other words, a real coup?
The idea will undoubtedly be raised in the lead-up to the Convention Rules Committee meeting, but it does not figure to have widespread support at this time. That may or may not change as the selection process makes the cast of 2,472 players at the convention clearer. Other, more modest tweaks are more likely to emerge from the Convention Rules Committee meetings in the week prior to the convention in Cleveland.

There’s been a lot of talk about pre-convention changes in the rules. Have you heard any scuttlebutt that the pre-convention maneuvering could include not just the rules but credentials or even the platform?
There is a regular process for rules and credentials and platform that includes doing some pre-convention work in the week before the convention. If the process gets to June 8 and there is no one candidate with a 1,237 majority of delegates, then all of these will become potential points of leverage for cobbling together a coalition of 1,237 delegates. The Convention Platform Committee is likely to be the sleepiest of the group, but that too could be used in the fight to form a coalition of delegates on the nomination. 

I’ve made a big deal out of the inability of a convention without a putative nominee to organize itself and make key decisions without letting the major candidates look over their shoulders and turn even minor matters (e.g., speaking slots, order of business) into big fights. Have you heard or do you share these concerns?
I would urge patience. Follow the sequence in the choose-your-own-adventure here.

1) Does Trump get to 1,237?

Yes. The story is most likely over.

No. Move on to No. 2.

2) Who has done a better job of getting “their” delegates selected and by extension the committees stacked in their favor?

If it’s Trump, the story is most likely over. If it’s not Trump (or a combination of Trump and others), that is where it potentially gets interesting.

A convention in this vein is inevitably going to be much more decentralized than the “contested conventions” back before the proliferation of primaries reduced the power of the national parties or the coalitions of “bosses.” That does have consequences, but we don’t yet have enough data to say one way or the other that the proceedings in Cleveland will default to chaos.