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In Colorado, the party pushed back

David McNew/Getty Images

Something pretty fascinating happened within the Colorado Republican Party over the past few weeks. Somehow, basically all of the Colorado delegates who will be attending the Republican National Convention this summer are Ted Cruz supporters. In a year in which the Republican Party has been largely unable or unwilling to coordinate and control the presidential nomination race, this is a substantial turnaround and evidence that a party can still get what it wants.

Over at National Review, John Fund described the state's Republican convention outcome as one of many anti-establishment upsets:

What happened was stunning. Ted Cruz, considered a fringe candidate by the media until four months ago, swept 34 of the 37 delegate slots for the Cleveland convention. Donald Trump placed second, and there was scant support for any establishment figure.

I think this miscategorizes what happened in Colorado. The term "establishment" is a vague one at best, and is particularly fraught this year. But to the extent that there was an insider choice, it was Cruz. Party loyalists are increasingly seeing a vote for Ted Cruz as the only way to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the Republican presidential nominee. They are rallying to Cruz not because they are fond of him (most aren't) but because they view his nomination as a less horrible outcome than a Trump one.

I spoke with one Republican state convention delegate who voted rather unenthusiastically for Cruz at the convention. As the delegate explained his vote to me, "I’d rather lose one election than the next four or five." (See both Hans Noel and Lindsey Graham for further exploration of this logic.)

The Trump campaign's strategy demonstrates the challenges of being a political outsider with little support from party elites. Trump has primarily focused on maximizing his visibility and popularity, and he's been masterful at it. That would be a very effective way to secure a nomination in a purely democratic system. But as more experienced candidates know, that's not the system we have.

Different state parties have different ways of selecting delegates to the national convention. Quite a bit of activity goes on before the primary or caucus (see Pennsylvania for a great example), and quite a bit goes on afterward (as Colorado demonstrates). The Cruz campaign has paid close attention to these rules, while the Trump campaign clearly hasn't, focusing solely on what happens the day of the caucus or primary.

Colorado Republicans offered a few reasons for abandoning the presidential vote at the caucuses this year, but a main one was that they simply wanted their delegates to be unbound as long as possible. This had the effect of limiting the state's importance early in the process but augmenting it later. Now that Republican insiders seem to be finally rallying behind Cruz to stop Trump, the Colorado delegate selection plan gave them a way to act on that late in the game.

Trump's complaint that Colorado's delegate selection system is undemocratic is beside the point. Of course it's undemocratic. A party may certainly seek the input of voters, but generally speaking it has broad discretion as to how it actually picks a nominee. The system used by Colorado's Republicans, like those of many state parties, is convoluted, but it's transparent, and it hasn't changed much across the decades. Trump could have paid attention to the rules governing that system, but he is instead complaining after the fact.

Trump may likely still go to the national convention with a plurality of delegates, but if he is denied a majority — and the nomination — it will be because of choices party insiders like those in Colorado made along the way. The party may be doing too little, too late, but it is actually doing something to affect its fate.

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