GOP Works to Illuminate Complex Primary Process
At this stage in a normal presidential primary, the Republican Party would be preparing to introduce its would-be nominee to the broader American electorate. Instead, in this decidedly abnormal year, as the GOP stares down a potential open convention, the Republican National Committee now finds itself scrambling to introduce the most arcane details of the primary process to wary and confused voters.
Rarely in modern presidential primaries has the delegate-selection process in all 50 states been a topic of much interest, nor have Republican voters needed to concern themselves with the party’s rules for the convention. But these wonky details have suddenly been thrust into the spotlight, in no small part thanks to the Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has raised objections to the process.
In Colorado this past weekend, for example, the state GOP selected its delegates to the national convention through a state convention, an unusual method that is nevertheless allowed under primary rules, along with the more common caucuses and primaries. Sen. Ted Cruz swept the Colorado contest after appearing in person and committing campaign resources there. Trump, who canceled plans to speak, has derided the result.
"It’s a crooked deal,” he said Monday on “Fox and Friends.” “The system is rigged, crooked. That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.” Later, Trump echoed this sentiment during a campaign rally in Albany, N.Y., where he called the Republican primary process a “dirty system.”
"Donald, it ain't stealing when the voters vote against you,” Cruz countered during a campaign event Monday in San Diego. “It is the voters reclaiming this country and reclaiming sanity."
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has aligned himself with anti-Trump Republicans, chimed in with a series of tweets Monday evening, mocking Trump for his lack of organization in Colorado and defending the state’s process to apportion delegates.
“If you can't figure out the Colorado GOP delegate process, how can you figure out how to balance the national budget?” read one tweet from Gardner.
Trump’s complaints received enough attention to warrant a response on Monday from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. “The rules were set last year,” Priebus tweeted. “Nothing mysterious — nothing new. The rules have not changed. The rules are the same. Nothing different.”
But Trump has not shown signs of letting up, stirring fears among some Republicans that he could galvanize his supporters to revolt if he loses the nomination at an open convention. Indeed, Trump has already begun to move toward directly implicating the party and its leaders.
“It's a disgrace for the party. And Reince Priebus should be ashamed of himself,” Trump said in an interview with The Hill published Tuesday. “He should be ashamed of himself because he knows what's going on.”
Faced with Trump’s strong messaging headwind, the RNC has begun explaining the primary and delegate allocation processes in earnest, including in a meeting last week with influential party and campaign surrogates. At the meeting, RNC aides fielded questions and distributed information packets detailing how delegates will be selected in each state and the rules of the most recent convention.
“The RNC is like the groundskeeper at a baseball stadium,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who attended the meeting but declined to comment on what was discussed. “They’re getting the field ready, putting out the bases, but the game is going to be played and decided by the delegates.”
The party’s messaging is not being restricted to activists alone. The RNC has debuted a “convention facts” webpage; meanwhile, Priebus and other RNC officials have become fixtures on television news and in radio interviews. In public interviews, they have emphasized transparency and the role of the delegates, selected at the state level and responsible for setting the rules at the convention.
“Whoever doesn’t win, you want to make sure that it’s not because of some rules committee change or something like that, that happens,” Priebus told conservative radio host Mike Gallagher on Monday. “It has to be only because I didn’t get the votes I needed on the floor. If we can get this thing all about who has the votes to make this happen, either before Cleveland or at Cleveland, we’re gonna be in a much better place.”
“There won’t be any games in Cleveland,” Priebus added. “If someone’s at 1,237, they’re going to be the presumptive nominee.”
A complicating factor to this messaging, however, has been the specter of a “white knight” nominee — an establishment favorite who could supersede the candidates currently running. House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday that he would not accept the nomination under such a scenario, quelling rumors to the contrary.
“If you get into a multi-ballot convention where you’ve got five or six or seven rounds, it's possible that a person can be nominated that’s not one of the three,” Priebus acknowledged on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this month. “But my position is, I think it's absolutely correct, our nominee is likely to be the one of the three people running.”
Indeed, the convention rules have in the past sought to prevent an insurgency. In 2012, when Ron Paul delegates promised to create a stir on the convention floor, delegates aligned with Mitt Romney on the rules committee prevented them from doing so.
“I don’t think they’re rigged,” Ron Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul, said of his party’s nominating rules during an interview Tuesday on “Morning Joe.” “But they are biased, and intentionally so.”
“‘Rigged’ would mean that it was illegal, somehow shady,” Rand Paul continued. “It’s done somewhat in the open, but they’re biased in favor of the establishment. So, for example, in 2012 when my dad was running, they made a special rule and said you can’t be nominated unless you win eight states, and then they didn’t count his votes.”
As Priebus and the RNC are working to quiet speculation about such high jinks, Trump is meanwhile stirring that pot. But his critics say it is a failure on the candidate’s part, not the RNC’s, if he comes up short at an open convention.
“If the primary system is essentially a complicated 50-state board game, what we’re seeing now makes it clear that Donald Trump never bothered to read the instructions,” said strategist Doug Heye, a former RNC official who now counts himself among the “Never Trump” Republicans.
Indeed, Trump tweeted in January 2014 a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."