OPINION | Trump Demonstrates Why Party Procedures Matter
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OPINION | Trump Demonstrates Why Party Procedures Matter

By Alexander B. Ewing
DPhil student in political theory at Oriel College, Oxford

Image Attribute: Mr Donald Trump New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19th 2015 at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH by Michael Vadon  / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribute: Mr Donald Trump New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19th 2015 at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH by Michael Vadon  / Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a campaign full of surprises, one could argue that the biggest sources of despair (if you are part of the GOP ‘establishment’) and space for Schaudenfreude (if you are a Democrat) is that the Trump Express is of the Republican’s own making.
Plenty has been written about the uneasy demographic arrangement that have delivered routine Republican victories. A good slice of the GOP coalition profits little (in fact suffers) from the same longstanding GOP policies that Trump is now assailing – light-touch financial regulation, free trade, reducing entitlement spending. The top-down push for immigration reform following the Mitt Romney defeat in 2012 was the last straw for the grassroots.
This is why the establishment cry about Trump not being a true conservative does little for them. Based on their mould, he’s not. And that’s why he’s winning.
But if we wade into more wonky matters, things get even more interesting (for political scientists at least). I’ll mention two things, one that the Republican Party wish they hadn’t done, and something else that they probably wish they had.
The first concerns the reforms to the Republican primary process following the drawn out contest last time, when one-hit-wonder candidates like Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum delayed the more-or-less inevitable nomination of Romney for months. Many argued that this damaged the eventual nominee unnecessarily.
By adding in minimum thresholds for delegate allocation in many states, along with a number of big winner-take-all states like Ohio and Florida, this year, it is much harder for candidates in the pack to stay close enough to the front-runner. But what made sense in 2012 is now accelerating the Trump Express in 2016. This is why Rubio failing to get 20% in a number of states last night is a big deal.
[Okay one extra thing: Add to that a number of bizarre decisions on the state level, like the Colorado GOP’s decision to eliminate its presidential preference poll, following national changes that no longer forced caucus states to do so. This means Colorado had no declared winner last night – a big blow to Marco Rubio, who would have had a good change of winning there.]
Meanwhile, the second issue concerns one of Hillary Clinton’s best weapons on the Democratic side, and something that the GOP establishment surely wish they had at their disposal – a tranche of so-called ‘super delegates’, who are automatically given a place at the convention and can vote for any candidate they want (i.e. they are ‘unpledged’).
Here the parties are very different. The Democratic Party hands out hundreds of them, just over 700. They are distinguished party members (ex-presidents for a start), state governors and sitting members of Congress, a number of members of the Democratic National Committee and party officers at state level. This does not allow for a coup – super delegates only account for roughly a sixth of the total, but no, it’s not very small-d democratic. Nevertheless, it allows for the possibility that the party can negotiate a block vote if things are close among pledged delegates.
As my Sanders-loving uncle keeps complaining about, this helps Hillary Clinton a great deal: most of the super delegates have pledged to vote for her so far. The score at the moment is Hillary: 457 and Sanders: 22. (See here.) [I bet the Parliamentary Labour Party wishes they had thought of this.]
Delegates need to win: 2,383
Hillary Clinton: 1,001 (includes 457 superdelegates)
Bernie Sanders: 371 (includes 22 superdelegates)
Not yet allocated: 3,393
How many super-delegates do the Republicans have? Technically, none. Although each state allocates three seats at the convention (the state party chair and two Republican National Committee members).
This is more bad news for Mr Rubio, but makes for interesting political science debate. Indeed, one of the most fascinating discussions in academic circles surrounds a recent book, The Party Decides, by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller. They conclude that even with a number of democratic reforms, political parties in America continue to have tight control over the nomination process.

I’m posting the publishers blurb below; but after this cycle the authors may need to write a new chapter.

Throughout the contest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, politicians and voters alike worried that the    outcome might depend on the preferences of un-elected super delegates. This concern threw into relief the prevailing notion that—such unusually competitive cases notwithstanding—people, rather than parties, should and do control presidential nominations. But for the past several decades, The Party Decides shows, un-elected insiders in both major parties have effectively selected candidates long before citizens reached the ballot box.
Tracing the evolution of presidential nominations since the 1790s, this volume demonstrates how party insiders have sought since America’s founding to control nominations as a means of getting what they want from government. Contrary to the common view that the party reforms of the 1970s gave voters more power, the authors contend that the most consequential contests remain the candidates’ fights for prominent endorsements and the support of various interest groups and state party leaders. These invisible primaries produce front-runners long before most voters start paying attention, profoundly influencing final election outcomes and investing parties with far more nominating power than is generally recognized.
About The Author:
Alexander Blake Ewing is a Lecturer at St Catherine's College, Oxford and a DPhil student in political theory at Oriel College, Oxford, where he works on the interrelationship between ideology, philosophy and history.

This article was originally published at Oxford Political Blog on March 2, 2016