Have Republican Primary Voters Proven Themselves Unfit to Pick a Serious Nominee?

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Republican voters have made Trump and Cruz the dominant candidates. Can party elites second-guess them now?Photo: Scott Olson/2015 Getty Images

One of the most quotable people in the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process is North Dakota RNC member Curly Haugland, who keeps insisting conventions, not all those noisy primaries and caucuses, nominate presidential candidates. He’s been all over the news media, but here’s a sample of his screw-the-people rhetorical stylings:

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The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here,” Curly Haugland, an unbound GOP delegate from North Dakota, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday. He even questioned why primaries and caucuses are held…

“The rules are still designed to have a political party choose its nominee at a convention. That’s just the way it is. I can’t help it. Don’t hate me because I love the rules.”

Haugland said he sent a letter to each campaign alerting them to a rule change he’s proposing, which would allow any candidate who earns at least one delegate during the nominating process to submit his or her name to be nominated at this summer’s convention.

A fellow North Dakota delegate — deliberately unbound to any candidate — named Gary Emineth went even further than Haugland by suggesting the nominee might not even need a single delegate from the primaries and caucuses:

It could introduce Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, or it could be the other candidates that have already been in the race and are now out of the race [such as] Mike Huckabee [or] Rick Santorum. All those people could eventually become candidates on the floor,” Emineth said.

Haugland and Emineth aren’t getting a lot of attaboys for their contemptuous attitude toward the GOP rank-and-file. But they are offering the operative theory for every dark-horse candidacy under discussion — and, for that matter, for John Kasich, who has been pretty thoroughly repudiated by primary and caucus voters in the many places not named Ohio. The basic idea is that voters and grassroots activists had their chance to pick a nominee, and they’ve blown it. So now it’s time for the Party to Decide (to cite the title of the 2008 political-science tome that significantly minimizes the role of voters in the nominating process).

You hear this sort of talk most often in the case Republicans are making that a candidate who arrives at the convention with a strong plurality short of a majority has no real moral claim to be treated differently from anyone else. Here’s New York Times columnist Ross Douthat today:

[T]he idea that winning a modest plurality of the primary vote in any way gives Donald Trump an ironclad claim to be the “legitimate” nominee is baffling to me. It runs counter to the actual rules of the process, to the history of contested nominations and conventions, to the entire tradition of party politics in the United States. And given Trump’s extraordinary weaknesses as a general election candidate, it also runs counter to the most basic sort of political self-interest.

Yes, the primary process has become much more democratic over the last two generations. But it’s still not like we have a national primary campaign, and anyone who pays attention knows that all those quirks and rules and bylaws have continued to play an obvious role in the outcomes every four or eight years. (I mean, Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina basically pick the nominee all by themselves most cycles!)

He can make that argument, but it’s pretty well-established that the voters so disrespected are not very happy about it, particularly this year. And they clearly sense this isn’t just about Donald Trump. In Wisconsin yesterday, exit polls showed a majority of Cruz and Kasich voters agreeing the delegate leader going into the convention should get the nod. And that confirms what Republican voters have been saying for a good while.

As it happens, even if party elites choose to take the risk of massively alienating their own rank-and-file by pushing aside both Trump and Cruz and choosing someone else as the nominee, it’s not clear they have the power to do so. Most obviously, Trump could win 1,237 bound delegates by June 7 (or come close and round up some random unbound support), and there’s not much the haterz can do about it unless they take the infinitely perilous route of trying to unbind delegates by a rules change (which even in theory would only work with delegates under no state law obligation to follow primary results). If Trump is short of 1,237, there could be an effort to recruit disloyal Trump and Cruz delegates into an effort to change Rule 40(b) into a wide-open procedure similar to what the North Dakotans quoted above would prefer (either open to any nominee with delegate support or open to those who won even minimal delegates in the primaries). 

But as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver explains in the most detailed analysis yet of delegate selection procedures around the country, the idea that party elites are busily choosing their kind of delegates who may overwhelm both Trump and Cruz once the first-ballot formalities are over is probably wrong:

It’s not that hard to imagine a contested convention. In fact, with Donald Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates looking tenuous, especially after his loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, it’s a real possibility. And it’s not hard to see how Republicans might think of Kasich or Ryan as good nominees. If Republicans were starting from scratch, both might be pretty good picks, especially from the perspective of the party “establishment” in Washington.

But Republicans won’t be starting from scratch, and the “establishment” won’t pick the party’s nominee. The 2,472 delegates in Cleveland will. And most of them will be chosen at state or local party conventions a long way from Washington. Few will be household names, having quietly attended party gatherings in Fargo, North Dakota, or Cheyenne, Wyoming, for years with little remuneration or recognition. Although the proverbial Acela-riding insiders might dream of Ryan or Kasich, there are indications that the rank-and-file delegates are into Ted Cruz — and they’re the ones who will have votes in Cleveland.

A lot of the activists who get themselves elected at local and state conventions almost certainly share the frustration that Cruz as much as Trump expresses toward a party Establishment that has in their view broken promises (most notably over Supreme Court nominations) to them for decades. The idea that they will go along with letting Karl Rove and Charles Koch choose a nominee based on donor enthusiasm and general election polling numbers strikes me as absurd. And if there are enough of them to top up the ranks of Trump and Cruz loyalists in Cleveland, they’ll put elites in their place toot sweet, as they say in North Dakota.