If some of the most recent polls of voters in upcoming primary states are to be believed, all the speculation about an open Republican convention may be premature. Donald Trump’s command lead in New York, as well as his advantages in other Northeastern states, may lead to victories later in April that will restore his momentum and get him the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination at the Cleveland convention in July. At the very least, another string of big wins will get him close enough to a majority that a few bargains with uncommitted delegates or one big deal with someone like John Kasich (whose continued efforts seem more aimed at helping Trump and hurting Cruz than a scenario in which he could eventually win) will ensure that Trump is the GOP nominee.

But Trump’s triumph is still far from assured. Opportunities still exist for Ted Cruz to gain ground in the next two months and to keep Trump short of his goal. More to the point, the selection of the actual delegates to the convention is proving to be something of a disaster for Trump. On Saturday, he prevailed in a party convention in Colorado that gave him the majority of the delegates from that state as he has in other states that use this system. He also is winning delegate selections that will ensure that he will get votes after the first ballot in Cleveland that will initially go to Trump. It is this arcane and often confusing process that is giving us all a new lesson in the form of government that our Founders believed in: indirect democracy.

Though most Americans take it for granted that the voters select the presidential nominees of the two major political parties, that assumption is not technically true. The party conventions are like the Electoral College. Most of us put it down as a relic of a bygone era that is purely ceremonial since the winner of the popular vote for president almost always wins the most states. It’s safe to think that until the moment when, as in 2000 when the winner of the popular vote did not become president, when the ceremony becomes substance.

The same is true of the conventions. The last contested conventions were in 1980 (Democrats) and 1976 (Republicans). The last time either party needed more than one ballot to choose a nominee was 1952 for the Democrats and 1948 for the Republicans. In the last 40 years, the conventions have merely ratified the decisions of the voters in the primaries with the actual gathering being nothing more than a staged infomercial. The conventions used to be covered gavel to gavel as they used to say, by all the major networks, which prior to the advent of cable television in the 1980s, meant they pre-empted programming on the few stations most people were able to watch in that era. In recent years, the broadcast networks have almost ignored them and for good reason, since actual news was in short supply at what were essentially staged events. Complete coverage was limited to C-SPAN with even cable news networks starting to be selective about what they would put on the air from the conventions.

But if we are about to return to the era of exciting, newsworthy conventions it also means that these gatherings will become essentially deliberative bodies. That is something about which Trump supporters are crying foul and, to a certain extent, they have a point. The voters in Republican primaries and caucuses have spoken in much of the country, and their verdicts should be respected. If by the time the voting is done on June 7, Trump has won a majority of contested delegates then he will be entitled to be the Republican nominee even if a majority of those who voted or who care about the party, think he doesn’t deserve the presidency and will lead the GOP to disaster in November.

But if, as was the case in 2000 when the closeness of the general election forced the peculiarities of the Electoral College to become the factor that decided the outcome, Trump cannot secure a majority, then the convention will decide. If that means, as it almost undoubtedly would, that someone other than Trump will win the nomination, then his supporters will cry foul. But they will be wrong to do so and not just because rules are rules and a plurality, which he will almost certainly have, is not the same thing as a majority. Rather, the problem here is a more general one about direct and indirect democracy.

The Founders constructed a political system that was, as much as anything, designed to moderate the shifting tides of political opinion and to allow political elites act as a check on the whims of the mob (in their day, many people would have referred to the Framers as the “establishment”). The unrepresentative Senate was supposed to frustrate the more democratic House of Representatives. The process by which the popular vote came to decide the presidency was the product of many decades and even then the Electoral College was left in place. That was also true in the political parties that ultimately came to dominate the affairs of the nation.

Primaries that allowed voters to have a say in presidential nominations were unheard of until the early 20th century. The 1912 election, in which the Republican Party establishment thwarted the efforts of former President Theodore Roosevelt to unseat William Taft, his old friend and designated successor, was the first time such primaries were held. Thirteen states voted, and Roosevelt won nine of them (though not his native New York) and got a majority of all the votes cast and almost 300,00 more than Taft. But Taft still controlled the convention via states without primaries causing TR’s supporters to walk out and found the Progressives, popularly known as the Bull Moose Party. The GOP split ensured that a Democrat (Woodrow Wilson) would win the presidency that year.

But that’s not the last time winning the primaries didn’t guarantee a presidential nomination.

As late as 1968 party elders and activists still dominated the selection process. In that year, the number of states in which Democrats held primaries was only one more than the GOP total in 1912: 14. Eugene McCarthy won the most votes and states (six) while Robert Kennedy won in four states. It is part of the mythology of Kennedy’s assassination, which happened the night he won the California primary, that except for the bullet shot by Sirhan Sirhan, he would have been the Democratic nominee that year. But Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t run in the primaries, was still able to use the party machinery to secure more delegates than Kennedy. At the moment of Kennedy’s death, Humphrey led him in the delegate count 561-393. Perhaps McCarthy would have ultimately thrown his support to Kennedy, whom he resented for having gotten into the race only after the Minnesota senator had forced President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw. Perhaps not. But ultimately the states that didn’t have a popular vote were the ones that decided the nomination that went to Humphrey in a convention that was dominated by political strife over the Vietnam War and violence in the streets of Chicago.

That isn’t the way the system is supposed to work now. In recent years, both parties have enshrined a process by which the states that vote first have a disproportionate influence on the outcome and are supposed to set off a chain reaction that renders the later voting states irrelevant. Bernie Sanders’ persistence and popularity is making Hillary Clinton work hard for the Democratic nomination, but the outcome is not in doubt. On the Republican side, it can be argued that had any other candidate won as many early states as Trump, the party would have consolidated behind him as it did for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. But Trump is such an outlier and his tactics so brutal and unpresidential that he is going to have to win a majority without any help from those activists and officeholders who would otherwise be jumping on the bandwagon of whoever it was that was ahead at this point.

But that doesn’t make the outcome of a contested convention illegitimate. Until a national primary is instituted that would make the outcome merely a matter of the decision of the voters, the nominations belong to the parties, not the electorate. The system by which county and state conventions choose the actual delegates to go to Cleveland is one that is based on the idea that the winners get more than a trip to Ohio. They are in effect being delegated by their states to represent them the same way we send people to Congress where they can, if they like, vote their consciences or their personal interests rather than follow the sentiments held by the majority of their constituents. If we don’t like what they do, we can vote them out of office. We don’t have quite the same power over convention delegates since they have but one duty and then disband. But primary voters are certainly free to reject the party’s ultimate choice in November.

As our John Podhoretz wrote on Thursday, predictions about what a contested convention will do are pointless because the situation is unprecedented within the memory of most Americans. A deadlocked convention, something that was routine in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, might result in a deal between the candidates that ran in the primaries. Or, as was often the case in the pre-television era, a stalemate could mean that a compromise candidate that had not run prior to the convention would be the only way to resolve the impasse. That is the Paul Ryan scenario that has both the Trump and Cruz factions up in arms.

Most deadlocked conventions wound up picking a loser in November and this year may be no exception. If that occurs, what we will be watching may be a modern version of the old “smoked filled rooms” cliché that was once the conventional wisdom as to how conventions actually worked. Smoking will be illegal in most of the back rooms in Cleveland, but the result may be just as unsightly as in our distant political past. But whatever happens, it will be the product of indirect democracy, not theft.

For decades, most conservatives have loved to carp at writers when they refer to our political system as a democracy by pointing out that what the constitution gave us was a republic. They are right. A republic is not pure democracy but a system by which the popular will is moderated by political elites that have in one way or another been chosen by the people. If that is what happens this year, many Americans may scream bloody murder about it, and it may create a party schism for Republicans. But it is an outcome that the Founders would have understood and respected.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link