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Republicans don't respect their own nomination process

John Moore/Getty Images

The only thing the Republicans have to fear is fear itself.

If Ted Cruz can talk about FDR in his Super Tuesday "victory" speech, then I can mangle his quotes to talk about the 2016 Republican nomination contest. It's only fair.

Several candidates are still in the race. Cruz managed three victories Tuesday night, and Rubio enjoyed his first in the Minnesota caucuses. But things are looking good for Trump, and at least from my little corner of the internet, Republican elite panic is starting to seem like at least as significant a force as Trump himself. The #NeverTrump movement has opened up questions about whether they, like, really mean it. No one can quite get Chris Christie's disturbing speech last night out of their heads. Experts are starting to admit that a contested convention is possible. What is going on? What ever will Republicans do?

If we take a step back here and look at the rules of the process, the panic takes on a different character. Republicans underscore the narrative that their party is falling apart by panicking over Trump's continued success in the primaries. It's true that what's happening is in some ways disturbing and unprecedented, but there's something else: This is how the formal nomination rules actually work.

The nomination system was reformed so that rank-and-file party voters could choose presidential nominees, even — especially — if their preferences diverged from those of the party elites. These changes resulted from a conflict within the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party followed suit in its adoption of primaries. It's embraced democratization and decentralization of nominations, allowing states to make their own delegate allocation rules.

By now the "party Decides" debate is probably getting a bit tired, but I'll reiterate — the thesis of that book is that parties informally coordinate in order to get around the chaos of the formal rules. In a 2012 paper on informal institutions in the US, Jenny Smith and I took this argument a step further, suggesting that the unwritten rules of the invisible primary and the norms about candidates dropping out during the primaries help to coordinate across a complex nomination system in which states seek to frontload, parties seek a smooth selection of a unifying nominee, and the formal rules are designed to hand the reins to the voters.

We also note in this paper (and I noted in the FiveThirtyEight Super Tuesday live blog) that informal processes often stand in for formal ones, but are more susceptible to transgression and prone to disintegrate quickly under the right circumstances.

That seems to be what's happening now. But as I wrote on Tuesday night, what's amazing is how much everyone seems to have accepted the informal, elite-dominated set of rules as the operative ones. If we really believed that nominations are decided by a series of primaries, is it really so surprising that an insurgent candidate with money and name recognition could hijack them?

If I were advising the Republican Party right now (and, who knows — as Dan Drezner hypothesizes, maybe they listen to political scientists), I'd get out in front of the apparent disjuncture between elites and voters. The party organization makes its own nomination rules, after all. Obama didn't impose them by executive order. What if mainstream Republicans — the ones who lined up behind Bush, Christie, and Rubio — simply said, "This is not our top choice. But this candidate is winning according to our rules, he's appealing to our voters, and we'll deal with it as best we can."

There's often much fuss about democracy within parties, focused almost entirely on how much influence voters have on nominations. But functioning democracy is so much more than that — it requires transparency, rules that are evenly applied, and respect for the process even when you don't like the outcome. Both national party committees routinely fail to meet these conditions.

In disavowing Trump's ideas, Republican leaders also throw their own primary voters, and the process that empowers them to choose the nominee, under the bus. They're revealing that they never believed in that process much to begin with — either as a matter of how things work or how they should work. That Trump can apparently insult individuals and groups day after day and gain more support tells us quite a bit about American politics that perhaps we didn't want to know. He's also winning under the established rules of the game, and no one is more shocked than the people who made those rules. That might tell us even more.