Every human system has both formal and informal rules. US presidential nominating processes are no different. But it’s often not clear what the informal rules are until a dramatic change of circumstances leads to their being violated. One of those is coming up now in the GOP nominating process. There was a very interesting AP piece today showing that while Donald Trump is in a commanding position he’s not yet winning a high enough percentage of delegates to win the nomination. As Stephen Ohlemacher and Steve Peoples explain, Trump is currently winning only 46 percent of the available delegates, a big plurality but not a majority.
I have real questions whether that percentage won’t increase substantially once we move into the post-March 15th primaries which have many more winner-take-all contests. But even if you set that aside, I think we have a case here of an informal rule coming into focus because it’s no longer operating.
If you look back at most recent primary processes, the winner doesn’t usually officially clinch the nomination until as long as a couple months or more after he “wins.” That is because in US nomination processes, you don’t win when you yourself win. You win when no one else has a realistic prospect of catching up with you or winning outright themselves. Once that’s the case, the rationale for everyone else’s campaign disappears. And with the rationale gone, money and stakeholder support quickly disappear as well.
Normally this shouldn’t be a big problem since presumably someone who is far out in the lead wouldn’t be far out in the lead if they weren’t a fairly strong candidate and someone most people can get behind, even if that candidate wasn’t their first choice. This informal rule also makes sense because the modern convention isn’t supposed to decide anything. The point of the exercise is to arrive at the convention with the nominee not only chosen but most of the work of unifying behind the nominee done. Since nothing is going to be decided, racking up more delegates makes little sense if you can’t be the winner.
The major factor driving this process is the (almost always correct) assumption that, all else being equal, the party has an interest in a rapid nomination process which is as clean as possible and lays the groundwork for unification around the chosen candidate. That assumption is breaking down. Now you have a substantial number of party stakeholders who are at least toying with the idea that it may be more important to deny Trump the nomination than win the election in November.
As I noted earlier today, that’s what the ‘contested convention’ story is really about. Most sophisticated party observers must realize that if the party establishment bands together to deny Trump the nomination even though he’s won by by far the most delegates, they are in all likelihood conceding the election. Most of the ‘contested convention’ talk now is just people who are in denial about what’s happening. I would say virtually all of it. But I got the first inclinations late today that certain party stakeholders may be genuinely considering the possibility of throwing away the presidential election over Trump.
The answer to this question is what is going to make the next month or so so fascinating. Is the party really going to fight this battle out state after state, not with any hope of having any other candidate win but simply to deny Trump the ability to automatically claim the nomination on the first ballot? The only reason to do that is to give the nomination to another person who either clearly did not win (Rubio, Cruz, Kasich) or perhaps didn’t even run in the primaries (Mitt Romney? Paul Ryan?). I will believe that when I see it. But this afternoon, as I said above, for the first time I saw some shreds of evidence that they may choose to go that route.