Protecting the President

Susan Estrich
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As the House opens its impeachment inquiry, even as new polls — from Fox News, no less — find a majority of voters favoring impeachment, the Republican Party has moved to protect the president from any challenge to his re-nomination. Fiddling with the rules is one of the favorite games of political insiders, and the Trump team is doing its best.

Last week, the South Carolina Republican Party was sued for having canceled its state GOP primary, one of five states to decide to automatically award all delegates to the president without any input from voters.

It was to save the taxpayers money, the party claimed in a press release: $1.2 million, to be exact. If you believe that ...

It’s true that both Republicans and Democrats have canceled caucuses when their respective incumbent in the White House sought reelection. But not when the incumbent was facing impeachment, not to mention real opposition — two governors surely counts as opposition — within his own party. And two of the states moving to eliminate any challengers, South Carolina and Nevada, are allowed to hold early contests — before the official window opens on Super Tuesday - that can be especially influential for a challenger.

While the elimination of primaries has drawn the most attention, it’s not the only step that Republicans have taken to protect the president. Both parties have enforced versions of proportional representation in awarding convention delegates, meaning that if you win 55% of the votes, you collect 55% of that state’s delegates. And the loser gets almost as many.

President Trump’s political team has reportedly convinced 37 states to move back to a system in which the winner of the statewide contests gets all the at-large delegates and the winner of each congressional district gets all the delegates from that district.

“Winner take all by CD,” we used to call it, a variation of the “bloc voting” rule that the Democrats have rejected and the Republicans suddenly embraced. It sounds very technical, but it isn’t. Simply put, it means that the frontrunner can lock up the nomination faster, shut down the contest sooner and close down the insurrection faster. You lock out the insurgent — literally.

Proportional representation means minority candidates, insurgent candidates, ideological challengers can rack up significant delegate totals, build momentum, complicate the process and, certainly, lengthen the process of collecting a majority of delegates. Which is why it was, for a time, embraced by the ideologues of both parties. And why establishment Democrats, concerned by the power of the ideological insurgents, created so-called superdelegates back in 1982 in an effort to balance the ideologues by making party leaders and elected officials automatic delegates to the convention. This year, the Democratic Party abandoned the rule, which clearly would have put former Vice President Biden well in the lead for delegates, even before the Iowa caucus.

The United States Supreme Court has given the two parties broad protection against interference with the presidential nomination process. So the courts are unlikely to force Republicans to hold primaries they don’t want to, or seat delegates they didn’t select. But even the most avid rule junkies can only do so much.

In 1968, a very liberal senator from Wisconsin embarrassed the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, in the New Hampshire primary. Eugene McCarthy didn’t win; he was never going to be president. But he did well enough that the incumbent president felt he had no choice but to pull out of the race, paving the way for Bobby Kennedy, among others, to jump into the race.

Iowa is not canceling its caucus. New Hampshire is not canceling its primary. Those contests aren’t about delegates. If Trump falters in those states, if remaining uncommitted starts showing up as a real alternative to Trump in Iowa or if New Hampshire votes for its neighbor from Massachusetts, it may not matter how many delegates he has locked up down the road.

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