Analysis

How Donald Trump got the Republican primary rules so very wrong

Trump has been laboring under the misimpression that the nomination process is democratic. It isn't.

Donald Trump is a man obsessed with fairness. Not so much as an abstract principle, but whether he is being "treated fairly," which essentially comes down to everyone giving him whatever he wants. As the primary campaign moves into its final stages, he is most definitely not being treated fairly, at least as he sees it. Strangely enough, it turns out that presidential campaigns run according to complex rules and procedures that you might not have mastered if you've never run for office before.

Trump is still winning, but lately Ted Cruz — nothing if not a shrewd operator — has been working the system to snatch delegates from Trump left and right. It has happened piecemeal in one state after another, but Trump's outrage erupted after Cruz captured all of Colorado's 34 delegates. The state party decided last year to allot its delegates not through a primary, but via an intricate process involving caucuses and a series of meetings; Cruz's people worked that process hard before the Trump campaign even realized what was happening, and wound up with the entire prize.

So now Trump is telling everyone how unfair it was, and his supporters are doing things like burning their registration cards in protest. It no doubt looks to them like, once again, the party insiders are rigging the game in their favor. But the real problem here is that Trump and the people supporting him were laboring under the misimpression that the nomination process is democratic. It isn't.

The fundamental fact is that this entire enterprise we're witnessing is about two private entities, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, choosing the people they want to put up for the real election in the fall. Just like the Democrats, the GOP can conduct that contest in any way it wants. It could select its nominee with primaries, or caucuses, or state conventions, or by holding an essay contest, or using one of those carnival strength testers, or with careful phrenological measurements of the candidates' craniums. It's up to them.

The fact that Trump didn't understand that, and doesn't understand the particular rules under which the contest is taking place, is like someone complaining that his opponent used a flea flicker in a football game or a double steal in a baseball game. Even if it momentarily confused you, that doesn't mean it was cheating.

It can be easy to forget, when so many Americans are going to polling places and we're taking exit polls and counting votes, that for most of American history, the backroom deal at the convention was the norm. Each party's leaders would get together and pick the person they thought most likely to bring them to victory (or the person best able to dole out favors). It wasn't until both parties transformed their nomination processes in the late 1960s that the parties' rank and file took much of a role in the nomination process, and primaries became something more than a way for those leaders to get a sense of what voters wanted — which they could ignore at their will.

Since those reforms, we've gotten used to the idea that the parties' nomination processes are supposed to uphold our fundamental right of fair representation. But they don't have to. And that's not to mention the fact that there are lots of features of the process that no one including Donald Trump is questioning, but that are equally unfair to voters. For instance, some of the states on the Republican side allot their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which effectively nullifies the votes of anyone who didn't vote for the winner. Donald Trump won the Florida primary with 46 percent of the vote, yet even though most Florida Republicans voted against him, he got all 99 of the state's delegates. I don't recall him complaining about how unfair that was.

And of course, there's an analogy with the general election, which is determined by the decidedly undemocratic means of the Electoral College. If you're a Democrat living in Texas or a Republican living in California, you know for certain that your vote will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the race, no matter how close it might be.

So even though the stakes are impossibly high, elections are games with complicated rules. It isn't enough to be the most appealing candidate; you also have to master those rules, or at the very least, hire people who understand them and can help you avoid their pitfalls. Donald Trump never bothered, and now he's paying the price.

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