Why the Rules Matter and Why They Don’t

Delegate rules may have helped Donald Trump so far; his supporters will still cry foul when they no longer do.

Businessman Donald Trump is interviewed by ABC News in Goffstown, New Hampshire, February 7
Businessman Donald Trump is interviewed by ABC News in Goffstown, New Hampshire, February 7 (ABC/Ida Mae Astute)

We argued a few days ago that Donald Trump’s complaints about the Republican Party’s nominating rules being unfair to him are a bit rich. If only because he has benefited more than anyone running for president this year from lopsided delegate-allocation rules.

The New Yorker won 46 percent of the votes in Florida, for example, but got all the state’s 99 delegates.

In all, Trump has won only 37 percent of Republican primary votes yet 46 percent of the delegates allocated so far are pledged to support him on the convention’s first ballot. (Take a look at Harry Enten’s latest at FiveThirtyEight for a detailed overview.)

He is only crying foul now that the rules are no longer working in his favor, for example in Colorado, where his closest rival, Ted Cruz, won all available 34 delegates at local party conventions this weekend.

Whose party is it?

Trump has no shame and his supporters haven’t been bothered by his hypocrisies so far. But for the rest of us, it’s worth restating what the Atlantic Sentinel argued last month, which is that the Republican Party has ever right to take the nomination away from Trump. It’s their party, not his. The businessman wasn’t even a Republican until a few years ago. He is still not a conservative.

Trump doesn’t advance the party’s platform. He doesn’t respect its norms and history. He is using the party as a vehicle for his personal ambitions. There is no rule or moral imperative that says the party should surrender and accept that because Trump has won the support of 37 percent of right-wing voters.

Or, as Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times at the time, what is the point of having a political party apparatus, all those chairmen and state conventions and delegate rosters, if they cannot be mobilized to stop a man so transparently unfit for high office?


The only problem is that Trump’s supporters will see it differently and then 37 percent of the Republican primary electorate could suddenly look like a lot.

Josh Marshall made a good point at Talking Points Memo earlier this month. Elections, he argued, aren’t really about rules and bylaws. “They’re about legitimacy.”

The Atlantic Sentinel and Douthat may be right about the rules and even the righteousness of stopping Trump. The nominating contest is not a democratic process. It’s a party business and the party can do whatever it wants.

But Marshall is also right when he argues that the whole process sure seems democratic to the average voter.

“Two or three generations of Americans have been trained to that reality,” he writes, “that understanding of how things are supposed to work.”

If Trump falls just short of the delegate majority needed to win the nomination outright, as looks likely, and if that happens at least in part due to the machinations of the Cruz campaign and party insiders who have been filling delegate slots with anti-Trump Republicans (even if those are not hard to come by), it will strike many Americans are simply unfair.

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