2024 presidential election

How Trump Rewrote the GOP Primary Rules to Favor Him

Trump rolled through the 2020 primaries under rules that may help him again in 2024. Photo: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of gabbing in political circles about the lessons of the 2016 Republican presidential-nomination contest, won improbably by Donald J. Trump. The biggie advanced by many writers is that, in 2016, Trump’s rivals made it easy for him to win by dividing up the anti-Trump vote, letting him prevail with only a minority of support within the party. Thus, we are told, Republicans need to unite behind a single 2024 challenger to the ex-president to avoid the same dreadful thing happening again.

The premise of this argument is questionable; Trump actually grew stronger in 2016 as the field grew smaller. But there is another factor that is likely to add to the pressure on Republican elites and voters to make up their minds early: Delegate-selection rules strongly favoring strong candidates.

It’s important to understand that, in general, Republicans do not share the insistence on proportional delegate rewards in primaries that Democrats have embraced in recent years. Republicans still have winner-take-all and winner-take-most (typically winner-take-all by congressional district) nomination contests, though pre–March 15 “early states” are required to award delegates proportionately. This means candidates who finish first in Republican primaries and caucuses often get overcompensated in delegates. But what a lot of people forget is that this front-runner’s thumb on the scales got significantly heavier in 2020, when Trump dominated the party entirely and wanted to avoid any embarrassing losses of delegates to gadfly candidates like William Weld. These 2020 allocation rules may carry over to 2024 in many states, as primary-process wizard Josh Putnam recently explained:

The Trump team was unusually active in nudging state parties toward changes for 2020 that 1) made it easier for Trump to gobble up delegates as the nomination process moved through the calendar of contests and 2) made it much more difficult for multiple candidates to win delegates. Bear in mind that there were minimal changes to the 2020 rules at the national level and that trend has largely held as 2020 transitions into 2024.

And that didn’t just apply to winner-take-all or winner-take-mosts states. Even states with proportional delegate-reward rules moved in 2020 toward higher minimum thresholds for winning any delegates at all:

Of the 26 states in 2020 that could have a qualifying threshold – those with some form of proportional rules – 18 of them set it to the maximum 20 percent. Just ten states of the 31 that could have a qualifying threshold had the maximum in 2016. The 20 percent maximum was by far the modal qualifying threshold for states in the 2020 cycle. 

All these shifts in rules already tilted toward front-runners could make it harder for dark horses to emerge slowly through incremental increases in relatively poor performances. As Walter Shapiro observes at The New Republic, the rules could favor Trump, or DeSantis, or both of them:

In 2020, about 60 percent of the convention delegates were chosen in winner-take-all primaries or in contests in which a candidate (Trump) who won over 50 percent (or sometimes a bit more) of the vote received the entire delegate haul. This time around, states have until October 1 to decide how they are going to allocate their delegates. But in all likelihood, inertia will rule.

Who benefits from this system? It’s not necessarily Trump. DeSantis or another candidate could unify the anti-Trump vote. So harking back to 2016 is not the only model for 2024. Equally plausible is that Trump and DeSantis could scrap for every delegate until the convention.

In addition, there are signs some states may move from Republican primaries to caucuses in 2024, even as Democrats abolish caucuses altogether. Caucuses are more likely than primaries to help candidates backed by hard-core ideologues, which likely means Trump or DeSantis rather than allegedly swing-voter-friendly options like Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, or Chris Sununu.

Above all, it’s important to understand that the 2024 nominating contests are no longer events far in the future. Iowa is likely to caucus in early January, according to Putnam’s calculations. Super Tuesday, when California, Texas, and 11 other states are scheduled to vote and award a vast number of delegates, is now less than a year away. The candidates (other than DeSantis) who haven’t made up their minds about entering the race are rapidly running out of time. And so long as sizable majorities (74 percent of them, according to the polling averages at RealClearPolitics) of Republicans currently prefer either Trump or DeSantis, the odds of anyone else becoming viable will drop steadily as the voting nears.

How Trump Rewrote the GOP Primary Rules to Favor Him