Beginning with the Colorado caucuses earlier this month, in which Ted Cruz won all the delegates to the Republican National Convention this July, and continuing through similar results in Wyoming and through last weekend’s Republican District conventions in Georgia, there have been plenty of blog posts and op-eds decrying the way the nominee of the Republican Party for president is selected. Virtually every argument rests on the idea that the candidate with the most votes should be the winner. A related argument is that it’s unfair that a delegate bound to candidate X might really be supporter of candidate Y. These arguments reflect at best, an obfuscation of what a representative republic is, and at worst a lack of knowledge of American civics.
America’s founders specifically did not want a direct democracy, which they thought was dangerous. Instead, they created a representative republic. While members of the House of Representatives were voted on directly by the people, Senators were originally selected by the state legislatures, and the President was elected by the Electoral College. In order to become president, a candidate must win a majority of votes in the Electoral College. If no one gets a majority, the election is thrown over to the House of Representatives, which selects the President, and the Senate which gets to pick the Vice President. The Electoral College is why we can have a president, like George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, that did not receive a majority of the popular vote.
That same principle holds within the Republican Party. In order to become the presidential nominee, a candidate must win the vote of a majority of delegates to the party’s national convention. In a nod to the country’s federalist principles, the national party specifies the number of delegates each state and territory will have at the convention, but does not specify how those delegates will be chosen within a given state.
While many state parties, like Georgia, bind its delegates to support a candidate based on the results of a primary election, others do not. States use a combination of winner take all delegates, proportional delegates, and even conventions to choose which candidate its delegates will support. Some states have primary elections, while in others,party members caucus. In Colorado, prospective delegates declare the candidate they support, and are voted on in county, district, and state caucuses. (That model of convention instead of primary has been proposed for Georgia as well.) State parties also have the right to decide how long its delegates will be bound to vote for their candidate.
In the end, the Republican candidate is not chosen by We The People. It’s chosen by the delegates who represent the People.
And that brings up the next question. While in recent memory, one candidate has amassed the number of delegates to win in the first round of balloting, that hasn’t always been the case. It took a third round of balloting back in 1860 before Abraham Lincoln became the GOP nominee, primarily because different factions within the party supported different candidates, not unlike the situation we find ourselves in today. Because RNC rules require a majority of delegates are required to win the nomination, it will be up to the delegates the people selected to represent them at the convention to come to a consensus on whom to choose. That’s not unlike the case when no candidate gets a majority of electoral college votes in the presidential election, and the House and Senate must decide.
Ultimately, some delegates are going to have to support a candidate they were not originally bound to in order for a later round of balloting to pick a candidate. As a result, delegate selection can be as critical as the result of a primary or caucus. Delegates are not chosen by “the establishment,” by the way. They are elected by party members who were nominated at county conventions in March to represent them at district and state conventions.
While some complain that the process of selecting a presidential nominee is confusing, or it takes too much time, or it doesn’t really represent the will of The People, there’s a method to the madness. Chicago writer Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional character Mr. Dooley famously said that “Politics ain’t bean-bag.” Those who refuse to learn the rules of the game, and then are amazed that they don’t get the results they want deserve what they get, and have no right to complain.