By Boris Heersink
In recent days the Republican Party has seen major conflict regarding the rules governing the 2016 presidential nomination race.
Frustrated with Ted Cruz’s success in sweeping delegates selected at local and state party meetings, Donald Trump has called the delegate selection process “rigged.” Although Trump and the RNC have clashed several times since last summer, his recent criticism is more severe, threatening the party with a “rough July” at the convention.
Meanwhile, Bruce Ash, the chairman of the RNC’s rules committee, has accused GOP leaders of improperly impeding changes in the party’s rules. Ash wants to create a rule to limit the candidates delegates can vote for at the convention to just Trump and Cruz. Other party leaders – including RNC chairman Reince Priebus – are trying to prevent such a change.
The RNC finds itself in an impossible position: if it changes the convention rules, the party limits itself to two candidates who seem unlikely to do well in the general election. On the other hand, if it maintains the rules as is, it keeps open the option of selecting another presidential nominee by ignoring the voices of millions of Republicans who voted in the primaries and caucuses.
This conflict is unique in its severity, and the extent to which party leaders are fighting it out in public. But it also illuminates the complexity of the current process through which political parties select their presidential candidates – pinpointing not only the importance of the primaries, but also of the complicated subsequent phase of delegate selection and convention management.
The controversies surrounding the RNC hit directly at a core responsibility of national committees: organizing and governing national conventions. As parties began relying on conventions to make intra-party decisions (including the selection of presidential nominees), it became clear that a party institution was necessary to organize them. Both parties created national committees in the middle of the 19th century and the RNC and DNC remain responsible for planning the convention and for setting their rules.
Unsurprisingly, such powers meant that the national committees have historically been accused of taking sides in presidential elections – sometimes accurately so.
For example, in the run-up to the 1860 election, members of the RNC made sure the convention was held in Chicago to provide a home-state crowd for their preferred presidential candidate – Abraham Lincoln. In the early 1930s, DNC chairman John J. Raskob plotted against the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by actively encouraging and assisting other candidates to run against the New York governor. And in 1976 – during the last contested Republican convention – supporters of Ronald Reagan accused the RNC of being in the bag for incumbent President Gerald Ford. In each of these cases, the national committee used its power to organize the convention to try and influence its outcome.
Delegate selection has similarly been controversial. Prior to the primary system, it was common for several groups of representatives of the state party to go to the convention and claim to be the official delegates from that state. The convention rules committees subsequently would have to decide which among these were the ‘real’ delegates. As Jeff Jenkins and I have shown in our research on the Republican Party and its Southern delegates in the late 19th and early 20th century, these decisions were often political, with committee members voting in favor of the slates of delegates that supported their preferred presidential candidate.
The switch towards a process of presidential candidate selection through primaries in the 1970s has mostly eliminated such conflict by producing a series of clear winners in both parties well before the conventions gathered. While candidates still accuse the DNC and RNC of showing preferential treatment, the committees are generally successful in staying above the fray.
Since 1976, each Republican convention has had a candidate with a majority of pledged delegates going into the convention. As a result, conventions have become less about making decisions, and more about presenting the presidential candidate to the public.
But this development has largely hidden the fact that the modern presidential selection process continues to rely on two distinct phases: the process of having voters decide in primaries, and a subsequent delegate selection process and the actual convention.
These two phases in recent years have coexisted pleasantly. With presidential nominees winning solid majorities of delegates well before the convention, delegate and convention rule changes are common but don’t change outcomes.
For example, the now controversial rule 40(B) – which the RNC created in 2012 – requires that presidential candidates can only be brought to a vote at the convention if they had won more than 50% of the delegates in at least eight states. The RNC made this change to block supporters of Ron Paul from placing their candidate on the ballot. While this frustrated Paul supporters, it had no effect on the nomination process: with Romney having a majority of delegates, it merely made the convention proceed more smoothly.
This year, however, the two phases of presidential selection are colliding. The closeness of the Republican delegate race has meant that for the first time in decades convention and delegate selection rules will actually influence the outcome of the nomination process.
Importantly, the party cannot escape taking a side: either it sticks with its current rules – keeping open the possibility of finding an outside presidential candidate if the convention deadlocks, but running the risk of alienating Republican primary voters – or it changes them, favoring Trump and Cruz. Either way, the RNC is set to aggravate many of their party’s members.
Boris Heersink is a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a National Fellow at the Miller Center.