Forget the old principle of “one person, one vote.” That’s not how American political parties pick their nominees.
During the party primaries, it’s sometimes possible for a candidate to get 19 percent of the vote — and no delegates. And come convention time, the voices of a few hundred party insiders can outweigh millions of citizens.
It appears 2016 could be the year that voter and party interests finally collide, with three candidates vastly more popular among voters than among insiders: businessman Donald Trump, who won the Republican primary in New Hampshire Tuesday; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who won an enormous victory on the Democratic side; and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the first-place winner in the Iowa caucuses.
Should one of these candidates finish the season ahead in the voting, but short on delegates, it could set off a crisis, throwing into high relief this long repressed question: Who’s really in charge of this process, the people or the parties?
How are candidates actually chosen?
Time was, candidates were simply anointed by party insiders. But beginning with the early 20th-century progressive movement, and waxing again in the late 1960s and 1970s, voters have successfully pressed for greater input.
But it is just input. Voters have no constitutional right to decide the winner. They vote for delegates, who are pledged to respect the voters’ decisions — up to a point.
And depending on the party, there are a lot of different ways for votes to be ignored or outweighed.
Most — but not all — of the delegates on the Democratic side are chosen by voters and caucus-goers around the country. And roughly speaking, the more votes you get, the more of these “pledged” delegates you amass.
One catch is that candidates need at least 15 percent of the vote in order to get any delegates; fall short of that number, and you come up empty. This cutoff helps ensure that low-polling candidates don’t wreak unpredictable havoc on the main contest, but with two well-matched candidates in the race — Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — it probably won’t matter much this year.
The bigger wrinkle involves the Democrats’ so-called superdelegates, who don’t have to follow the will of any voters. These high-ranking party officials, members of Congress, governors, and others are free to vote as they like at the convention.
This year, there will be 713 superdelegates, compared with 4,051 voter-elected delegates. To get a sense of that disproportionate power, think of it this way: These 713 party insiders get 713 convention votes. By contrast, 713 regular citizens have the equivalent of 0.08 convention votes.
In 2008, Barack Obama had more regular delegates than Hillary Clinton, but not enough to secure an outright majority. Superdelegates put him over the top. And had they broken for Clinton, things could have been different.
There’s more variation on the Republican side, because states can make their own rules.
The great bulk of delegates are chosen based on voter preferences, sometimes following results in congressional districts, other times statewide numbers. But there are a lot of caveats.
Some states divvy up delegates to match the vote share. Others follow the Democratic strategy, cutting out candidates with low numbers. In Georgia, for instance, candidates need at least 20 percent of the vote to get any delegates — not easy in a race with multiple viable participants.
Republicans also have several winner-take-all states, where the candidate with the most votes can walk away with all the delegates. Among these high-stakes states are Ohio, Arizona, and Florida — the last a potentially race-changing battleground with home-field advantage for Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush.
Republicans don’t have nearly as many superdelegate-type free agents, but there will be more than 100 party members at the convention able to choose a candidate for themselves.
What if voters and insiders disagree?
The primary rules matter, and they could easily make the difference between winning and losing.
To start with a small example, consider that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is drawing a lot of support from independents — perhaps not surprising, given that he’s not even a member of the Democratic Party. In New Hampshire on Tuesday, Sanders won by nearly 50 points among independents, but by a scant 4 points among Democrats.
Yet not all states allow independent voters to participate in primaries. That rule could seriously hurt Sanders’ chances.
Even more far-reaching, though, is the question of what happens at the end, if there is no clear winner. Imagine that Sanders enters the Democratic convention with a thin majority of voter-chosen delegates, only to find his path blocked by superdelegates, many of whom have already come out in favor of Clinton. Would this tarnish Clinton’s candidacy and the party brand? Or would Democratic voters still line up behind their nominee?
Among Republicans, the risk of a full-blown convention crisis is ever more pronounced.
Given the thick crowd of competitors, and the fact that second-tier candidates like Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Rubio seem likely to stick around, it may prove impossible for any candidate to amass an outright majority of delegates. And in this race, it’s 50 percent or nothing.
Say the final results look like the New Hampshire results, with Trump locking up roughly 35 percent of the delegates, twice as much as anyone else. That wouldn’t be enough to make Trump the nominee. It would merely set off a second, far more unpredictable, round of voting.
When convention delegates fail to reach majority consensus on the first ballot, virtually every delegate becomes a free agent, with no obligation to serve their voters’ preferences. It’s called a brokered convention, and it hasn’t happened in the modern primary era.
In that case, should delegates and party members pick the person they think best, even if that means overruling the voters? Or would a move like that split the party and doom Republicans to years of internal strife and electoral losses?
Months of primary results and political vicissitude still separate us from these kinds of decisions, and plenty of unpredictable primary campaigns have found their settlement before convention season, whether it was the Obama-Clinton 2008 campaign or George H.W. Bush’s long battle with Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Rarely, though, has the prospect of a summertime convention showdown seemed as likely or the dark rules of candidate selection so potentially explosive.