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Donald Trump’s amazing incompetence at delegate selection, explained

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

Donald Trump is winning the primaries, and he's winning in the delegate count.

But Trump is gradually starting to realize the danger that Ted Cruz could truly have the most delegates in his corner at July's Republican convention.

"What kind of a system is this?" Trump protested this week. "I’m an outsider and I came into the system, and I’m winning the votes by millions of votes. But the system is rigged, it’s crooked."

What's happening is that Cruz's campaign seems to have mastered — and Trump's campaign seems to be bungling — a complex, arcane part of the primary process called delegate selection. That's the determination of exactly who the delegates who vote for the nominee will be.

Trump has done so badly at delegate selection so far that it looks like a good number of the supposed "Trump delegates" who go to the convention won't truly support him. Now, under current party rules, they will still have to vote for him at first — but they could try to block his nomination by changing the rules or by defecting from him in later rounds of balloting.

This is a development that, yes, could result in Trump actually losing the nomination at a contested convention — though such a turn of events could be quite controversial.

But this crisis for his campaign also seems very revealing of what kind of president Trump would be and what kind of administration he'd run. Because the billionaire himself seems to have been completely ignorant about this important topic until recently. And his team has been ineffective and, by many accounts, utterly inept in handling it.

How does the delegate selection process work?

When media outlets say that Trump has won around 750 delegates already, they mean that by Republican Party rules those delegates are "bound" to vote for Trump on at least the first ballot.

Yet that count doesn't tell the whole story. Those delegates are real people too — and in most states, the candidates have no direct say about just who their delegates are.

Take South Carolina. Back in February, Donald Trump won its primary and "won" all 50 of the state's delegates. Yet those delegates are being named through an entirely separate, complex process that is still unfolding — a process that has far less voter participation and been subject to far less media scrutiny.

  1. Things kicked off in March, when Republicans convened county conventions across the state.
  2. Those county conventions elected delegates that will head to both South Carolina congressional district conventions and the state's Republican convention.
  3. This month, the party is holding seven congressional district conventions, which will each elect three national convention delegates — naming 21 altogether. (Two congressional district conventions were held this past weekend.)
  4. Then the state convention on May 7 will elect the remainder of the national convention delegates (26 plus the party chair, national committeeman, and national committeewoman).
  5. Finally, there's one more catch — the South Carolina Republican Party's rules state that anyone seeking to become a delegate to the national convention must have been involved in the state's 2015 GOP convention. They can't be newcomers to the process.

So though the 50 delegates that eventually emerge from that process will all be bound to vote for Trump on the first ballot at the convention, many of them might not truly support him.

For example, all six delegates chosen at two South Carolina district conventions last weekend are officially bound Trump delegates. But in reality, three are Cruz supporters, and two are uncommitted. Just one delegate actually supports Trump, according to the State's Andrew Shain. And this basic story is repeating itself in many other states Trump has won.

Why does it matter if some of Trump's bound delegates don't truly support him?

If the outcome of the presidential nominating contest is close — and maybe even if it isn't — the delegates have the power to swing the outcome.

Now, in the past four decades of major party presidential nominating contests, the delegates have never actually used this power. They've always nominated the candidate who emerged triumphant from primaries and caucuses — the choice of the voters.

But the controversial and polarizing Trump has engendered bitter resistance from some elements in the party, and left others with deep worries about nominating him. So there could well be a serious effort to stop him at the convention.

If that unfolds, the key thing to remember is that "bound" Trump delegates are only bound to do one thing: vote for him on the first ballot of the convention's nominating vote. They have to do that.

But they are also free to undermine him in any of these ways:

  • They can vote to give anti-Trump delegates important seats on the convention's rules and credentials committees.
  • While voting on rules for the convention, which are potentially crucial, they are totally free to vote against Trump's wishes. They can even vote for rules changes that are deliberately intended to sabotage Trump.
  • Most importantly, if no candidate gets a majority on the first ballot, and multiple rounds of balloting for the nomination ensue, more and more delegates become unbound and are free to vote for whichever candidate they want. (State laws and rules vary on when they become unbound, but for most it happens right after a first inconclusive round of balloting.)
  • It's even theoretically possible that the delegates could vote for the "nuclear option" — a rules change that would change the rules to unbind delegates even if Trump theoretically has a majority.

So yes — unless Trump ends the primary voting as the very clear and unchallenged winner, it's possible the delegates could hurt his candidacy very badly or sink it entirely.

However, it's important to keep in mind that though the delegates can do all these things in theory, they may well be restrained by democratic norms in practice. The more flagrantly they try to to tip the scales, the bigger the backlash from actual voters they'll likely provoke.

What's the breakdown of delegate selection rules among the states?

The various states and territories get to make up their own rules for how they select their delegates, so there's a good amount of variation. FiveThirtyEight has a great rundown of the various rules here. But to simplify:

  • About two-thirds of Republican delegates overall are named in processes like South Carolina's — through a series of local and state caucuses, conventions, or party meetings.
  • Furthermore, each state or territory has three RNC members who automatically get delegate slots — together they compose 7 percent of the total number of delegates.
  • That leaves only about a quarter of GOP delegates that primary voters or the presidential candidates have any direct say in. These delegates are either elected directly on the ballot or chosen by the presidential candidates themselves.

It's that first category that's both biggest and most dangerous for Trump. In contrast with a primary, which is easy to understand and gets tons of media coverage, state and local party meetings or conventions can be confusing and fly under the radar.

As a result, they tend to be ignored by most voters and attended mainly by party die-hards and extremely motivated activists. And overall Trump's supporters have tended to be less engaged in the nuts and bolts of party activity.

We should also note that the delegate selection process unfolds more slowly than the primaries. Two-thirds of GOP delegates have been bound to various candidates so far, but so far fewer than one-third of them have actually been named. So all this will keep playing out through May and early June.

What's the evidence that Trump is screwing up delegate selection?

How much time do you have? Let's start with a rather stunning find from the Huffington Post's Samantha-Jo Roth from early last month: A Trump adviser trashed the campaign's delegate strategy on Facebook, and wrote that when he tried to improve things, top Trump aide Michael Glassner responded by saying the following:

"Mr. Trump doesn't understand how delegates work, so we are leaving that issue alone right now."

If true, this is an astonishing admission of ignorance about the basic facts of the presidential nomination process. And essentially everything that's come out since seems to corroborate that the Trump campaign has been either apathetic about or incompetent at the delegate selection game. Here's a recent (one-sentence) summary by Politico's Nick Gass:

"[Beyond Colorado, Trump has] suffered delegate setbacks in Georgia (where one county that went for Trump by 12 points will be represented by 90 percent Cruz backers), Indiana (where Trump appears virtually assured of being shut out), Iowa (where all but one of the state's 12 delegates is committed to Cruz on a second ballot), Louisiana (where Trump lost 10 delegates and filed a complaint with the RNC), North Carolina (where Trump had fewer congressional level delegates than John Kasich), North Dakota (where Cruz's delegates won 18 of 25 slots earlier this month), South Carolina (where on Saturday he picked up just one delegate out of six on the ballot), South Dakota (where support for Cruz among delegates would appear higher) and Tennessee (where the Trump campaign also threatened to sue after a heated convention) — mostly at the hands of Cruz."

And that's not all! I'd add that Cruz appears to be dominating delegate selection in Arizona (a state Trump won) and Washington state (which hasn't yet voted). Even in Michigan, where Trump didn't do all that badly, the Cruz campaign claims to have picked up more second-ballot votes, according to Time's Zeke Miller.

Why is Trump so bad at this?

Part of Trump's lack of success here might have to do with the nature of his supporters. Certain candidates manage to mobilize supporters who are highly committed, organized, and consistently willing to devote time to local party fights. This usually has to do with ideology — Ron Paul managed to do rather well in several states' delegate selection process in 2012, because his people kept turning out disproportionally to these local party events. Ted Cruz's supporters have seemed similarly committed this year.

Trump supporters, though, have overall seemed less familiar with the political process. They've proven more likely to actually show up to vote in ordinary primaries than in more complex, lower-turnout caucuses — let alone obscure state and local delegate selection events. So it may simply be harder for Trump to mobilize his people.

But considering the many, many reports that Team Trump lacks basic elements of a campaign infrastructure, it's hard to put much blame on his supporters. The bigger problem appears to stem from the top — Trump just didn't understand, care about, or put any effort into delegate selection. (He recently hired a new staffer to run that part of the process, but the results haven't been particularly impressive so far.)

From the start, Trump's strategy has always been about his own personality and his media megaphone. Little emphasis and few campaign resources have been placed on organizing or building a movement.

Indeed, Trump himself has never run for office before and is unfamiliar with many traditionally important parts of the process. For instance, he admitted after his Iowa caucus loss that he "wasn't even familiar with" the campaign term "ground game" (which refers to a candidate's effort to actually identify his or her actual supporters and get them to turn out at the polls).

He's done quite well in the campaign despite all this, of course. And it's quite possible that none of this will matter. If he gets his majority of delegates, and even perhaps if he finishes in a strong first, it's possible that his delegates will go along with democratic norms and respect the will of the voters, even if they'd prefer not to.

Yet Trump's bungling here has bigger implications, because it reflects poorly on his overall preparation to be president. Presidents have to handle many issues, some of which get a ton of media attention and some of which don't. To be successful, they and their team have to zero in on what matters most, both solving crises that break out and preventing them from breaking out in the first place.

Trump and his team have utterly failed to do that in this lower-profile but potentially crucial part of the campaign process, and a crisis has erupted. Trump's handling of this reflects poorly on his supposed ability to hire the "best people," his attention to detail, and his overall competence.

And there's a real chance that as a result, the famous "winner" could end up a loser.