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Don't assume Donald Trump is doomed if he falls short of a delegate majority

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

If Donald Trump doesn't win a majority of delegates, don't assume he's done for.

I and others have written about the various ways in which Donald Trump could lose the GOP nomination at a contested convention — and it looks like a real possibility.

But when gaming out these elaborate delegate scenarios, I do think it's important not to miss the forest for the trees. If current voting patterns continue, the following four things will be true around convention time:

  1. Donald Trump will have won more delegates than any other candidate.
  2. Donald Trump will have won more states than any other candidate.
  3. Donald Trump will have won more votes than any other candidate.
  4. And Donald Trump will have led national polls of Republicans for more than a year.

If all this is the case, it will appear to a great many people that regardless of what the GOP's rules say, Trump is the rightful winner of the primaries.

So delegates trying to depose Trump will have to consider more than just what they'd like to happen and what the rules permit to happen. They'll also have to grapple with modern democratic norms — and the potential that the convention's outcome could be viewed as illegitimate by the party's voters.

Republican voters think the first-place winner should get the nomination

It used to be completely ordinary for national conventions to pick presidential nominees with little voter input. This was simply how things worked.

That's not the case anymore, and hasn't been for decades. Every presidential nominee since the 1970s has effectively been determined during the primary and caucus voting. The conventions rubber-stamped the choice of the voters.

So the idea that the convention, not the voters, could determine the nominee sounds weird and wrong to many voters today.

Indeed, a recent Vox/Morning Consult poll found that 55 percent of Republican voters reacted negatively to the prospect that the first-place finisher in the primaries could lose the nomination at a convention.

Javier Zarracina / Vox

The most common emotions GOP voters said they'd feel about this were anger, disappointment, and frustration. The poll tested this scenario both with and without Trump named as that first-place finisher, and the results hardly changed.

So the anti-Trump forces have a problem on their hands. Because if Trump loses the nomination despite finishing with a delegate plurality, he will loudly proclaim that it was "stolen" from him — and many voters seem predisposed to agree.

The anti-Trump case is a difficult one to make

Anti-Trump Republicans know they have a problem on their hands here. So they've been trying to publicly and repeatedly make the case that this is not some antidemocratic effort to depose Trump, but simply the way the process works if no one wins a majority of 1,237 delegates.

GOP operative Rick Wilson had a pithy way of putting it:

In an interview last month, former RNC chief of staff Mike Shields suggested to me that any convention action could be viewed, effectively, as a "runoff" — like runoff primary elections in some states that are held if no candidate gets above 50 percent.

The difference, of course, is that an ordinary runoff kicks things back to the voters, while a contested convention would do no such thing. Instead, the matter would be taken out of the voters' hands and decided by a select group.

This puts anti-Trump commentators and operatives in the awkward position of arguing that the party and not the voters should decide — an odd argument to make to voters.

It will be an uphill struggle. Time's Zeke Miller had a good summary of this challenge:

Even in 1968 — back when it was far more ordinary and indeed normal for conventions to decide the nominee — intense controversy ensued when the Democrats were seen as defying the will of their voters by nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who supported the Vietnam War and hadn't run in any primaries. Their convention that year was a chaotic and at times violent disaster.

That was before voters had several decades to get accustomed to the idea that they, not the party, choose the nominee. And even then, Democratic leaders had a pretty good excuse for ignoring the primary results, since one of the leading candidates, Robert F. Kennedy, had been killed before the convention.

Paul Ryan's demurral shows the power of democratic norms in today's primary process

A contested convention today would play out in a very different environment from the conventions of yore, which truly were determined by insiders and bosses. Over the past four decades, democratic norms for the primary process have evolved, and as a result certain things that would have been perfectly acceptable in the 1950s would seem appalling today.

We see this at work in Speaker Paul Ryan's announcement that he would not accept his party's nomination at the convention.

Before this, many insiders and commentators had feverishly speculated about the possibility of Ryan being nominated at a contested convention. It seemed to make a whole lot of sense on paper — he had managed to unify House Republicans, he'd been vetted by Mitt Romney's team in 2012, and he'd seemed above the fray this cycle. Indeed, billionaire Charles Koch was on board, according to the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Sam Stein.

Ryan put a stop to that with his announcement this week — but he didn't quit there. He added that he thought the delegates should "only choose from a person who has actually participated in the primary" — and that they should adopt a rule making this clear, and therefore blocking dark horse candidates like himself and Mitt Romney from consideration.

So this wasn't just a personal decision. Paul Ryan is a leading figure in the Republican Party, and he does not want the Republican Party's voters to view the outcome of the convention as illegitimate or "stolen." And his statement shows that, contrary to insiders' fantasies of a white knight, Ryan thinks nominating someone who didn't even run is completely absurd in this day and age. (Indeed, this was the most unpopular scenario we tested in our Vox/Morning Consult poll.)

It's not yet clear how the delegates would perceive their role in a modern contested convention

This year's Republican delegates will head to their convention under intense, constant scrutiny from the media and voters. And we don't yet know how the delegates will respond to that scrutiny.

But one of the biggest questions in any contested convention scenario is how the delegates will perceive their roles: to exercise independent judgment, or to follow the will of the voters in some form?

  • Some delegates will likely be die-hard NeverTrumpers convinced that preventing Trump's nomination is a perfectly legitimate or even necessary thing to do.
  • Yet others, like Ryan, could be concerned about whether Republican voters will view the convention's outcome as legitimate, and therefore might shy away from anything that could be seen as blocking the voters' will.
  • And there will likely be a spectrum of opinion in between (as well as, of course, some strong Trump supporters).

The vast majority of the delegates haven't even been chosen yet, so we can't know where their leanings are. There are reports that Ted Cruz has done very well in the delegate selection process. But even there, we don't yet know how many of those Cruz delegates are absolutely dead set on nominating him even if he finishes the primary season in second place.

Additionally, so far it looks like the vast majority of Republican elected officials aren't even trying to stop Trump. If they're not even willing to endorse Ted Cruz, it's hard to imagine that those who are delegates would be willing to tear the party apart so they can nominate Cruz over the first-place finisher.

Overall, though, keep in mind that delegates won't be making their decisions in a vacuum. There will be polls, there will be demonstrations, and there will be constant press coverage. Yes, the delegates would get to decide at a contested convention — but they'd do so fully aware that the nation's eyes are on them. And if Trump leads in delegates, state victories, and votes, he'll have some powerful arguments on his side.