Parties, the Convention, and Trump

Donald Trump’s populist uprising has, for some, cast the parties and their somewhat Byzantine nomination procedures in the role of anti-democratic anachronism. Ross Douthat sticks up for the parties:

As Donald Trump attempts to clamber to the Republican nomination over a still-divided opposition, there will be a lot of talk about how all these rules and quirks and complexities are just a way for insiders to steal the nomination away from him, in a kind of establishment coup against his otherwise inevitable victory.

We can expect to hear this case from Trump’s growing host of thralls and acolytes. (Ben Carson, come on down!) But we will also hear it from the officially neutral press, where there will be much brow-furrowed concern over the perils of party resistance to Trump’s progress, the “bad optics” of denying him the nomination if he arrives at the convention with the most delegates, the backlash sure to come if his uprising is somehow, well, trumped by the party apparatus. …

But [these arguments] cut against the deeper wisdom of the American political tradition. The less-than-democratic side of party nominations is a virtue of our system, not a flaw, and it has often been a necessary check on the passions (Trumpian or otherwise) that mass democracy constantly threatens to unleash.

That check has weakened with the decline of machines, bosses and smoke-filled rooms. But in many ways it remains very much in force — confronting would-be demagogues with complicated ballot requirements, insisting that a potential Coriolanus or a Sulla count delegates in Guam and South Dakota, asking men who aspire to awesome power to submit to the veto of state chairmen and local newspapers, the town meeting and the caucus hall. …

A man so transparently unfit for office [Trump] should not be placed before the American people as a candidate for president under any kind of imprimatur save his own. And there is no point in even having a party apparatus, no point in all those chairmen and state conventions and delegate rosters, if they cannot be mobilized to prevent 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate from imposing a Trump nomination on the party.

The argument I can’t fathom is that Trump must be the nominee if he arrives at the convention with more votes than anyone else, even if fewer than the majority needed for nomination. For the delegates to combine to “deny” him the nomination on this scenario, some have argued, would be undemocratic and wrong.

Such claims ignore the point of the primary process and the fundamental nature of a convention. Until a candidate gets the majority of the delegates, he may be in the lead, but he hasn’t won. There is nothing unusual about the candidate who leads on the first ballot ultimately failing to obtain a majority. One obvious example is Abraham Lincoln’s nomination by the GOP convention in 1860.

Lincoln was an underdog coming into the convention. On the first ballot, William Seward, the favorite, had a big lead over Lincoln, 173-102.5. But delegates started swinging toward Lincoln, and on the second ballot, while Seward still led, Lincoln had closed to within a few votes. Lincoln took the lead on the third vote, although still short of a majority, and thereafter clinched the nomination as many more votes flowed to him.

So was it somehow a frustration of the democratic process for Lincoln to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee? No one has made that claim until now.

Donald Trump may well win the GOP nomination, but only if, at some point during the convention, he receives the votes of a majority of delegates. If he doesn’t get a majority, the delegates will continue to vote and will look for a candidate who can solidify the party. That is how conventions operate, and I, for one, hope it works that way this year.