Answering Ross Douthat


Ross Douthat has an interesting piece in the Times looking at the slow motion train wreck heading into Cleveland. Particularly, he disagrees with a post I wrote a week ago (“Hell to Pay“) in which I said that whatever the technicalities and bylaws of the nomination process, these paled in the face of the legitimacy iceberg Republicans would face if they essentially tossed out the primary and caucus voting process in favor of an establishment figure like a Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney. Now, I’d quibble a bit with Ross’s suggestion that I’m ‘surprised’ by this turn of events. That’s not what I said. But the core point of disagreement is a valid one and one that’s worth exploring.

Here’s one key quote: “The 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.” Again, a small quibble. If Trump comes in 40% of the delegates and Cruz has 37%, I certainly don’t think that’s an open and shut case in terms of the legitimate outcomes.

But here’s the essence of Ross’s argument …

[This concept of legitimacy] 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!) Indeed, the quirks of the game played a particularly obvious role just eight years ago, in the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama tilt, when Team Obama consistently outworked Team Clinton in the same way Cruz is outhustling Trump, the ensuing delegate gap was vastly wider than the gap in the popular vote (where, indeed, Clinton technically-though-not-really finished ahead), and Obama’s final margin of victory was padded by his disproportionate share of unelected superdelegates.

What I take Ross to be saying here is that the history of parties in the United States, the numerous instances contested conventions over the last 150 years and the general understanding that there are a lot of weird rules in the process just makes it clear that this is not some sort of straightforward democratic process where the person with the most votes, but not a rule-clinching majority, should win.

My argument is that what happened in 1920 is really irrelevant. Before about a half century ago, the nature of conventions was just fundamentally different. It was a genuine meeting of the leaders of the national party where, through a process of negotiation and gauging of popularity and electability, the party – sometimes quite messily – chose a nominee for the presidential election. That is not how it works today, even though there is much vestigial apparatus still left over from those days.

Now we’ve had a half century of political acculturation in which the primary process is presented as a big national election process. Yes, state by state. Yes, with slightly different rules in each state – but fundamentally an election sampling of the preferences of voters. So, true, you can have situations where the Caucus winner on election day ends up getting a bit fewer delegates after the state convention because the ‘losing’ candidate’s state convention delegates showed up in greater numbers than the winners (that just happened to Hillary in Nevada). But if you come out and say, “Well, according to the rules we can just toss out all the voting and pick some other guy” … well, I just don’t think that will fly.

That doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong or that I’m surprised it can happen. It’s a simple prediction: I don’t think you can pull that off. Not outside the convention hall and I’m pretty dubious whether you can do it even inside – since it will be filled with delegates of the candidates getting tossed off the island.

Now let’s wrestle this down to a hypothetical. If Trump comes into Cleveland with 1100 delegates and Cruz has 1000 and Cruz cuts deals with Rubio and Kasich and some uncommitted delegates that gets him to 1237, I could see that happening. The Trump folks would be furious and they might be furious enough to disrupt Republican unity to the extent of losing the presidency for the GOP. But that’s how it goes.

But that scenario doesn’t seem to be the one that’s being proposed and not really the one I’m talking about. I’m talking about a situation where Trump comes in with most but not more than half the delegates, Cruz is either close or not that close (but clearly the guy who has most of the remainder of the delegates) and the convention decides to nominate neither of them and choose someone who didn’t even run in the primaries.

Maybe you can pull that off. But I doubt it – not without cratering the party for the election cycle and likely creating long term damage that will take some time to repair.

Ross and I seem to have a basic disagreement about the acculturating role of experience and practice in defining people’s perceptions of legitimacy. A few recent data points seem to lean in my favor. A new McClatchy poll shows that 52% say Trump should still get the nomination if he has the most delegates, even if he misses on the first ballot. 40% say the convention should “nominate a different person for president.” (An exit poll out of Wisconsin last night, where of course Trump got walloped, came up with similar numbers.)

As you can imagine, the internal breakdown varies hugely depending on who respondents themselves support. But significant minorities of Cruz and Kasich supporters say Trump should still get the nod. Critically, only 29% of Republicans and Republican leaning independents say it would be “acceptable to you” for the nominee to be someone who didn’t run in the primaries. That’s a tough hill to climb and fertile ground for a spurned Trump and Cruz to run on.

I go back to my original point. Elections aren’t fundamentally about rules and bylaws. They’re about legitimacy. For a series of partly-historically contingent reasons, starting about fifty years ago we switched to a system which is in effect a national primary nomination election, albeit run state by state. Two or three generations of Americans have been trained to that reality, that understanding of how things are supposed to work. I simply think that tossing out the whole primary voting process at the convention will be a bridge too far. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen or can’t happen. I’m saying I don’t think they can pull it off and have a party to speak of to run in November.