The primaries aren’t supposed to be democratic.

The Nomination Process Isn’t Democratic? It’s Not Supposed to Be Democratic.

The Nomination Process Isn’t Democratic? It’s Not Supposed to Be Democratic.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 20 2016 10:52 AM

The Primaries Aren’t Democratic? They’re Not Supposed to Be Democratic.

The parties are doing what parties are built to do: pick the candidates who best represent them.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Oct. 8 in Las Vegas.

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Donald Trump says the process of picking Republican presidential delegates is “rigged.” His son compares the process to “Communist China.” Bernie Sanders says unelected Democratic superdelegates are propping up Hillary Clinton. Sanders and Trump are running as populists, challenging a corrupt nomination system in the name of democracy.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It’s true that the system is full of quirks. Why do some states award their delegates proportionally, others by congressional district, and others by winner-take-all? Why do some conduct open primaries, while others restrict participation to caucusgoers? Why does a Republican delegate elected by Trump supporters get to vote for Ted Cruz at the convention? You can quarrel with any of these rules. But let’s not pretend that everyone deserves a say in choosing the nominees. Parties are entitled to privilege their members and choose candidates who best represent their ideas. Trump and Sanders don’t necessarily fit the bill.

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Last weekend, Trump’s top aides went on the Sunday shows to complain about the Republican process. “What this election has shown is that when voters participate, Donald Trump wins,” said Trump’s convention manager, Paul Manafort. That’s misleading. What the election has shown is that in a multicandidate field, Trump usually gets a plurality. So far, the only place in which he has won a majority is his home state, New York.

As the race has narrowed, Trump’s advantage has shrunk. That’s why he got spanked in Wisconsin. And that raises a hard question: Does Trump truly represent Republican voters? Or is his lead in the delegate race a residual artifact of a multicandidate field? Even now, John Kasich’s persistence as a third candidate is propping up Trump. Look at two national polls taken this month. A Fox News poll shows that if Kasich were to drop out, 55 percent of his voters would go to Cruz. Only 24 percent would go to Trump. A CBS News poll indicates that if Kasich were to quit, Trump’s lead over Cruz would shrink from 13 points to 10 points, leaving Trump still short of a majority.

So when Trump complains about multistage delegate-selection procedures that leave him with fewer delegates than he should have won based on primaries held two months ago, bear this in mind: He’s complaining about a result that might have happened anyway if voters had been allowed to register their second choices and reallocate their votes accordingly. A snapshot isn’t necessarily better than a deliberate process.

Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has another objection. On Fox News Sunday, he complained:

Let me give you one example. In the state of Florida, Donald Trump dominated and won by 23 points over all of his competitors down there. He was awarded 99 delegates under the party rules. Of those 99 delegates, the chairman of the party of Florida, who is an avid and outward supporter of Marco Rubio, gets to appoint 30 of those delegates. ... That’s not what the rules should be. The rules should be that Donald Trump won 99 delegates, and ... we should have the opportunity to appoint those people.  
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Lewandowski botched the story: The Florida GOP chairman didn’t take sides in the primary and doesn’t appoint any delegates. But even if he did, the bigger outrage is that Trump got all 99 delegates for winning 46 percent of the vote. In three winner-take-all states—Florida, Arizona, and South Carolina—Trump won 43 percent of the combined ballots but was awarded all 207 delegates. That accounts for his entire 200-delegate lead in the nomination race. Overall, Trump has collected 48 percent of the delegates in Republican contests while winning only 37 percent of the vote.

Manafort says Trump wants Republicans and independents, “not the party bosses,” to choose the nominee. Lewandowski complains that in some states, delegates are chosen based on “whether they run for statewide office and how much volunteering they have done,” while other applicants are slighted “because they haven't been involved the last 25 years. That’s everything that’s wrong with the party system.”

Everything that’s wrong with the party system? Dude, that is the party system. A party is an organization. It has every right to award clout based on how much work you’ve put in over the years. Why should drive-by independents get more say than party bosses? I should know: I was one of those independents. In 2000, the Maryland Republican Party allowed people like me to vote in its presidential primary. I voted for John McCain over George W. Bush. McCain was a better fit for people like me. But was he a better fit for the party? And isn’t that the point of a Republican primary—to choose a candidate who will represent the GOP?

It’s particularly rich to hear all this rhetoric about inclusion from a campaign whose core issue is sealing the nation’s borders. According to Trump, we mustn’t let in any Muslims, since we don’t know who they are. “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” he says. Meanwhile, Trump brags about flooding Republican primaries with independents who pledge allegiance only to him and his defiance of the Republican platform. Why shouldn’t the party reassert its right to nominate someone who shares its beliefs? If you don’t have ideological boundaries, you don’t have a party.

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Sanders shares some of Trump’s gripes. Prior to New York, the Vermont senator bragged about winning “eight out of nine caucuses and primaries” since March 22. But he’s trailing among superdelegates—Democratic officeholders and party officials who get to vote at the convention, just like delegates elected in primaries and caucuses. Sanders thinks that’s rotten. “Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the establishment. And she has many, many times more superdelegates than we have,” Sanders noted on Face the Nation. On Monday, he said he  had “serious problems” with this system. He complained about “the establishment folks—these are elected people, these are money people, who are superdelegates.” He also criticized laws in New York that tell “hundreds of thousands or more independents who would like to vote tomorrow, for me or anybody else, [that] they can’t participate. I think that that’s wrong.”

Can’t participate? Sure they can. Registering as an independent is a choice. In many states, that choice comes with a price: You don’t get to vote in primaries. If you want to vote in a primary, join a party. That’s what I did two weeks ago: I saw that the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Maryland was really close and that my vote might matter. So after 16 years, I changed my registration. On Monday, I got my new registration letter in the mail. It’s that simple.

Yes, Sanders has won a bunch of caucuses and primaries. But do those wins really convey a mandate to represent the Democratic Party? Exit polls show that among self-identified Democrats, Sanders has beaten Clinton in only two primaries: his home state of Vermont (easily) and the neighboring state of New Hampshire (barely). In every other primary, Sanders has either lost to Clinton or won by padding his tally with independents. And regardless of party, Clinton has won 56 percent of all ballots cast in Democratic contests. Sanders has won only 42 percent.

As for the caucuses Sanders has won since March 22, check out the rules. You can’t vote absentee. You have to show up at a specific time, usually on a Saturday morning. You’re advised to reserve a seat or arrive hours early, since “there will probably be lines.” If you miss the start time, you can be locked out. You have to endure “instructions and patriotic ceremonies,” “speakers on behalf of all the candidates,” and “general discussion and debate.” The process can take hours. In most states, your ballot isn’t secret: You literally “stand with your neighbors in support of your preferred candidate”—or you go to a different corner of the room and stand against them. And if your candidate doesn’t get 15 percent of the vote at your caucus, you have to change your vote or throw it away.

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That’s why few people attend caucuses. Many states don’t register voters by party, so it’s hard to say how many Democrats there are. So let’s use, as a rough proxy, a uniform standard that can be measured everywhere: the state-by-state vote totals for Barack Obama in the 2012 general election. The turnout in caucus states won by Sanders this year (except Utah, which has a more open process) has ranged from 9 percent to 13 percent of the Obama vote. By contrast, the turnout in primary states won by Clinton—even if you exclude the South, which Sanders claims is her base—has ranged from 40 percent to 67 percent of the Obama vote. Sanders tends to win two types of contests: ornate caucuses with very low turnout and wide-open primaries in which independents compensate for his poor showing among Democrats. Neither of these models certifies him as the candidate who best represents the Democratic Party.

Sanders doesn’t even identify himself as a committed Democrat. His Senate bio calls him “the longest serving independent member of Congress.” It doesn’t mention any party affiliation. A year ago, when Sanders announced his presidential candidacy, he said he wouldn’t join the Democratic Party. Since then, he has couched his affiliation with the party as a temporary arrangement.

Why should the Democratic Party cater to a candidate who won’t commit to the party? And why should the Republican Party support a candidate who doesn’t support half of its platform? In choosing a nominee, a party has two logical priorities. One is to pick someone who can get elected. The other is to make sure that the nominee is loyal to the party and its beliefs. Otherwise, the party becomes just a vehicle for personal ambition. The party has no obligation to make its nomination process unbiased, democratic, or open to all voters. That’s the job of the general election.

So don’t cry for Trump or Sanders. Like anybody else, they can run for president in the fall. For now, the candidates are seeking the nominations of the two major parties. And it’s the parties—state committees, superdelegates, and all—that get to choose the process and the candidates that will represent them best.