Texas delegation at RNC, 2012

Members of the Texas delegation at the
Republican National Convention 2012/
photo by Alan Clanton

Delegate Math:

It Gets Complicated

| published April 11, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Most voters alive today have little if any recollection of what a brokered convention, or “open” convention looks like or sounds like.

The last time the Democratic Party has a truly contested convention was in Chicago in 1968, when emotional, high-stakes disagreements inside the convention—much of it about the war in Vietnam—spilled out into violence and confrontation chaos in the streets. The last time the Republican Party saw a truly brokered convention was in 1964, when the insurgent forces of Barry Goldwater challenged the establishment legions of Nelson Rockefeller.

There has been minor drama, as when Senator Ted Kennedy’s strategists attempted to wrest control of some of President Jimmy Carter’s delegates at the Democratic convention in 1980, or when nominee Reagan briefly flirted with the idea of linking arms with former President Ford at the GOP convention that same year—a bad idea, as it turned out. And there was minor tension when the balloons failed to fall on cue in 2004 for the coronation of the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket, a surreal equipment failure which was seen as symbolic of the larger failures of the Kerry campaign.

But generally speaking, ever since the GOP contest of 1976, when Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination, neither major political party has had any real drama at a convention. The big tent political meetings have become increasingly choreographed, scripted affairs, with few surprises, and even fewer “floor fights.”

For that reason, it is easy to forget that nomination battles are all about delegates—pledged, committed delegates. The two major political parties have entire reams of paperwork explaining how delegates are selected—complex and arcane guidelines and structured scriptures regarding how each and every delegate will be chosen based on a patchwork of mathematical formulas and procedures.

For more than a decade, Democrats have allotted delegates proportionally, state by state, but maintain a more free-slowing, fluid parallel system of so-called super-delegates—party leaders and elected officials who can vote their own conscience. Though there has been intense debate over the real agenda behind super-delegates—with party regulars saying that the process awards the party’s elders with input into the selection process and helps them to maintain a modicum of order and balance, and with insurgents and reformers claiming that super-delegates merely enable elites to keep control of the party.

Super-delegates can also change their mind if so inclined. As it became increasingly clear that in 2008 Barack Obama was gaining the upper hand over the faltering Hillary Clinton, super-delegates began to defect from the Clinton camp—first in small numbers, then in larger numbers as spring turned to early summer and as the convention drew closer.

It is exactly this sort of mass migration of hearts and minds which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hopes to crystalize between now and the summer. Sanders still trails Clinton in the delegate math, but he hopes to use his recent string of primary and caucus victories to convert energy away from Clinton and into his column. The jury remains out on how effective Sanders’ strategy will be within a few weeks; if he loses in New York or Pennsylvania, or both, the experts suggest, his math challenge will become very nearly insurmountable.

For the Republicans this year, things may get even more complicated, and nasty. The Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his closest challenger Texas Senator Ted Cruz are now locked in a ferocious battle for delegates—every delegate. Cruz’s own recent string of wins now makes the odds of a brokered convention in Cleveland almost a 100% certainty.

According to Republican National Committee rules, to win the nomination straight up without a floor fight requires 1,237 pledged delegates. This is the so-called magic number. If no candidate is able to muster enough delegates to reach 1,237 on the first round of balloting, each subsequent round releases more delegates to vote as they choose. For Trump to win on the first ballot at the RNC would require him to win more than 61% of all remaining delegates. Similarly, for Cruz to win outright would require him to win 85% of all remaining delegates. For Ohio Governor John Kasich, who currently has roughly 145 delegates, there is only one path—a brokered convention in which his name is floated as an alternative to either Trump or Cruz, or Rubio or Bush, for that matter.

The current delegate score between Trump and Cruz, at least according to the Associate Press: Trump 744; Cruz 545.

Cruz has consistently out-gunned and outmaneuvered Trump in the delegate head-hunting skirmishes, gaining the upper hand especially in caucus states or in those states where a hybrid system exists between traditional primary preference selection and caucuses, or caucus-like processes. Trump—like his potential November rival Clinton—tends to perform best in those states with primary-only mechanisms.

This has had a predictable outcome: for weeks, Trump has been openly complaining that he is being treated unfairly by the convoluted math and the patchwork of arcane rules. He has accused Cruz of essentially stealing delegates through backroom dealings, legal wrangling, and rulebook loophole chicanery. And the billionaire front-runner has made dire predictions of what will happen if he is denied the nomination, even grumbling about a revolt if he is thwarted after arriving in Cleveland with dozens or scores fewer delegates than required under RNC rules.

As recently as Sunday and Monday of this week, Trump has groused about the RNC’s delegate rules, calling them “corrupt” and manipulative. On the Sunday morning political shows, and again on Monday, Trump has said that Cruz is pilfering delegates, and has called Cruz’s sweep of the Colorado delegate distribution “totally unfair” and a sham.

“The people of Colorado had their votes taken away from them by the phony politicians,” Trump announced in an angry Twitter message Sunday night. “Biggest story in politics. This will not be allowed!”

Cruz has earlier swept the contest, pitching a no-hitter, to use baseball parlance. Grabbing all the 34 delegates at stake, Cruz padded his score and left Trump and his followers seething. Trump’s anger was directed at the Colorado GOP, who had voted much earlier in the season to dispense with the usual non-binding (but generally accepted) straw poll open to all the state’s registered Republicans. The party decided instead to revert back—as the state’s rules and the RNC’s guidelines allowed in the fine print—to a caucus system whereby each Congressional district would choose delegates in separate meetings and caucuses. (Colorado’s decision to conduct the caucuses in place of the straw poll sparked the ire of some within the national GOP, and ultimately forced the date of Colorado’s Republican…event…to be rescheduled from an early date to the late date in April).

But this procedural turnaround proved to be a windfall for the Cruz campaign and its vastly superior team of experts on the arcane business of a caucus, even as it instantly flummoxed the Trump people, who had no experience in such forms of local trench warfare. With Cruz’s sweep of all 34 delegates, Trump is now screaming bloody murder.

Trump is now using his trump card, pun intended: his point is that millions of voters have selected him to lead the GOP in the fall. At a New York rally on Sunday, he pointed out that he is ahead of Cruz “millions and millions of votes.” It is a reasonable argument—one used frequently in recent Presidential elections to enhance the value of voters in the context of a general election, and inevitably the Electoral College. In 2008, candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each sparred heatedly over the relative importance of such numbers—popular votes in the primaries versus the delegate count as measured by the ability of one candidate to better master the “system” than others, or one other.

Indeed, candidates in both parties more often than ever before point to their grand total of primary and caucus votes—and in many cases the size and scope of wins in certain states—as proof positive that their message will likewise resonate in a general election.

For Trump, those “millions and millions of voters” who have taken him thus far along the political path have spoken, and it not the role of backroom politicians to finagle and con their way to a different outcome.

But some analyst of the delegate math for the GOP—including some political gurus at NBC News—point out that so far this year it has been Trump, not Cruz, who has benefited mightily from the complexities of the primaries and caucuses. Those experts point to the realities of the numbers. Trump does not lead Cruz by millions and millions of votes, but by 1.91 million votes. Indeed, so far this year Trump can account for 8,198,026 total votes cast to Ted Cruz’s 6,263, 574 votes. This is a significant difference, but it also squares more appropriately with the delegate count than Trump is letting on. In fact, Trump has a slight advantage in the delegate distribution; Trump has won the allegiance of 45% of all delegates even though he has won roughly 37% of the votes cast. In other words, taken as a whole, Trump is being treated fairly by the party and its various state affiliates.

Still, The Trump team is not going to make the same mistake it has made in states like Colorado or Iowa or Louisiana again. The campaign has brought on board several new top staffers, and rearranged duties at the highest levels so that those with deeper knowledge of the rules and guidelines in upcoming states have the final say on how things will be decided. Trump has also hired a new “convention manager,” Paul Manafort, a big gun top-level strategist whose main role is to wrangle delegates and navigate the often mind-boggling complexities of delegate distribution. Manafort is also a wartime manager, expected to be Trump’s main general on the floor of the convention when things get complicated, and nasty, and brutish. As the convention draws closer, expect to see Manafort begin training and deploying a team of floor wranglers outfitted with the smartest of the smart technologies to track the moves of every person in the room in Cleveland.

Cruz meanwhile will soldier on as he has been doing. Now that he has the backing—in some cases reluctantly—of much of the GOP establishment, Cruz will continue to hammer home the point that Trump is not inevitable, and that there is plenty of time to take the lead away from the billionaire. Cruz also knows that his likely path to the nomination will be found in a brokered convention, the likelihood of which seems to be increasing with each passing contest.

Old school will meet new school in that “open” convention, with the specter of people with big geeky headsets and brick-sized walkie-talkies replaced with roving experts with app-heavy smartphones in their hands, Bluetooth devices in their ears, and Google Glass on their faces. Watch for our upcoming handbook: Stuff You’ll Need For the Brokered Convention.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Cruz Cruises to Victory in Wisconsin; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 6, 2016.

Does Trump's Negative Polling Signal Problems for GOP?; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; April 8, 2016.