Say it’s Wednesday, Nov. 9, and Hillary Clinton, a very unpopular politician, has just defeated Donald Trump, a historically unpopular politician, by a safe popular-vote margin and a landslide Electoral College tally. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, but it is a distinct possibility. And say you’re the people who run the Republican Party: Republican National Committee officials, state party leaders, and so forth. You saw this coming a mile away, and you want to make sure that this—your primary electorate selecting an agonizingly unelectable candidate as your nominee in an election you should’ve won—never happens again.
What could you do?
One answer that comes to mind is to stop working your base into a destructive, nativist froth over every little thing while somehow expecting it not to reflect that insanity in its presidential primary selection. But this is exceedingly unlikely.
No, the less honest and therefore more plausible path is just to keep the insanity machine humming while tweaking the nominating rules to produce a nonhumiliating national candidate for the general election. This is a balancing act that the GOP improbably had been able to pull off until this cycle. Trump’s nomination represents the fulfillment of the disaster scenario bruited after the post-1968 primary reforms that granted voters a more direct role in selecting their nominees. The fear was that voters would be empowered to choose an incompetent and unelectable boob over the wishes of the party, and that the party would have no recourse when they did.
Nearly half a century later, Republican voters have their boob and the GOP has no recourse—at least, not for this election. But if Trump loses in the way some are predicting, we shouldn’t be surprised to see party elders propose a set of compensatory primary reforms designed to neutralize any future Trumps.
One idea would be to move in the Democratic Party’s direction: toward a uniform sequence of proportionally allocated contests.
Although Trump complained about the rules being “rigged” against him following his shutout at the Colorado conventions, the Republican nominating rules on the whole were beneficial to him. Until his romp through the Northeast, Trump had been unable to reach 50 percent in any state and typically unable to hit 40 percent. Winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules nevertheless allowed him to capture either all or most of the delegates in those states in which he won slim pluralities, as in Illinois or Missouri. Had each state followed pure proportional allocation, anti-Trump forces may well have kept Trump beneath a delegate majority and forced a contested convention.
But Republicans aren’t predisposed either to top-down solutions or—with some state exceptions—proportional allocations. And neither would solve the root problem for the party of how a strong plurality of voters selected a toxic figure over any number of more viable candidates. It’s not an accident that Democrats have a system of uniform proportional representation while Republicans have a patchwork system of individual state rules, many of them winner-take-most or winner-take-all. It is related to the different cultures of the two parties—or, frankly, the stereotypes about them that happen to be true.
Democratic reformers in the 1970s really were of the mind that everyone should get a participation trophy. Following the 1968 convention debacle and over the course of several centrally run commissions beginning with McGovern–Fraser, Democratic reformers pushed to open the nominating process to more people. This led both to more delegates being selected by primary and to uniform proportional allocation rules to ensure that each faction of the party, as represented by individual candidates, could take some delegates so long as the candidate topped a certain minimum threshold. Following the nominations of George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, the party restored some order of party control by reserving delegate slots for free-agent “superdelegates,” or leaders who could cool the passions of primary voters if needed. So far, Democratic superdelegates have never overturned the will of primary voters.
Republicans gradually adopted certain reforms to bind delegate selection to primary voters’ candidate preferences but were loath to institute uniform national rules, preferring instead to leave delegate allocation to the states on the principle of states’ rights. And though some Republican state parties allocate proportionally, Republicans have a disdain for proportional allocation because, as Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck writes in her book Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How American Nominates its Presidential Candidates, they want “the nominating system to mirror the winner-take-all aspects of the general election and the Electoral College.”
Even if the Republicans did have a system like the Democrats’ this cycle, though, how would that have stopped Donald Trump without tearing the party apart?
Say Trump went into the convention with 40 or 45 percent of the delegates he needed to clinch the nomination, well above the figures Ted Cruz, John Kasich or Marco Rubio had. And then say the Republican Party had superdelegates who voted en bloc to deny him from hitting a majority. Would that not still effectively count as the will of the voters being denied? Before Trump had wrapped up the nomination this cycle, after all, polls showed that sizable majorities of Republicans believed the plurality delegate leader should be the nominee. (And yes: If Democratic leaders ever have to pull the superdelegate trigger against a pledged delegate leader they consider unviable, they will be in crisis, too.) It’s very hard to overturn the will of the people so long as there’s a will of the people, assuming parties have an interest in not lighting themselves on fire.
Another answer for the Republicans moving forward, then, would be to muddy what the “will of the people” really is. In other words: for more state parties to eliminate their presidential-preference votes altogether.
“There will definitely be some serious activity [on a state-by-state level] if, as predicted, Trump gets beat in a landslide and he takes a lot of Republicans with him,” Kamarck—who is also a Democratic superdelegate—tells Slate in an interview. “That’s the sort of nuclear scenario that would definitely lead to some real changes.”
Kamarck sees the solution as moving away from presidential-preference votes and toward selection of unbound delegates—i.e., back to how the system worked for most of American history. So long as there are direct presidential-preference votes, people are going to expect those votes to be honored, which is why overturning voters’ will at the convention is such a nonstarter. “What you can’t do is keep having primaries, and then not have the delegates reflect the primaries,” Kamarck says. “But what you can do is you can simply get rid of the preference vote, which basically was the system from 1831 to 1968.”
Eliminating presidential-preference votes eliminates delegate binding, and not just in the theoretical sense that delegates should in some way feel bound to reflect the preferences of the voters they represent. A Republican rule change this cycle bound delegates to presidential-preference votes, so some states that held nonbinding presidential-preference caucuses in 2012, like Minnesota and Colorado, were not allowed to do so in 2016. Minnesota decided to keep its presidential-preference caucuses and thus its delegation was bound. Colorado, however, eliminated the presidential-preference portion of its caucuses altogether and instead just selected delegates to district and state conventions. Members of the state’s RNC delegation chosen at district- and state-level conventions were allowed to remain unbound unless they signed a pledge during the process to support a certain candidate (which, at least this time, they did.)
In the rubble of Trump’s loss, more state parties—at least those interested in eventually winning the presidency for their party—would be tempted to eschew their candidate-preference votes and move toward emphasizing delegate selection. “The thing that makes the voters mad,” Kamarck says, “is they vote in a primary and they’re led to believe their vote’s going to matter. … But if you have a system that has no ‘beauty contest’—no presidential preference—then the voters can’t be disappointed.”
If you were designing a system from scratch, maybe. Voters can and will be disappointed if the system moves backward to an era when they had less power. (See, again, the complaints about how “rigged” Colorado held no presidential-preference vote.) What Kamarck is describing—even if it puts more power in the hands of delegates who are inclined to support a more seaworthy candidate—would roll back principles of direct democracy. It wouldn’t take away anyone’s “rights,” since parties are not public bodies and can more or less choose their presidential candidates however they want. But it would take away what voters have come to see as their rights, and it’s very hard to stuff that cat back in the bag if you still want people to belong to your party. The parties may have had a less direct system of selecting nominees for most of the country’s history prior to 1968. But it did change after 1968, and there were principled reasons for it—even if 2016 drew out the nightmare scenario that reformers had been warned about.
The inescapable truth is, there really is no easy rules tweak available to prevent another Trump from hijacking the party. Maybe nibbling at the edges of the problem won’t work. Maybe the only way to prevent the nomination of another unpalatable demagogue really is to stop working the base into a destructive, nativist froth over every little thing. A long shot, we know. But political parties exist to perpetuate themselves. Eventually, everyone gets sick of losing, and the people in charge do something about it.