Defending the Convention

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the democracy for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Something’s not quite right there. Did you spot it?

Ah, there it is. We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic. The word comes from the Latin “res publica,” a concept coined, like so many other modern political concepts, by the ancient Romans. In a republic like ours, leaders are elected by citizens, and they are constrained by the rule of law like the rest of us (Hillary Clinton notwithstanding). If we were a purer democracy, you and I would be voting on a lot more things. Instead, we invest our power in representatives to make most decisions for us, whether through municipal government, state legislatures, the federal government, or the Electoral College. Most relevant to presidential primaries, we don’t directly vote for primary candidates; instead, we vote for delegates who then make decisions for us at a national convention. That’s the way it’s been done for decades.

This process usually lacks controversy because leading candidates usually run away with the primary once the early states sort it out for the rest of us. But now we see a candidate on each side — the GOP’s Donald Trump and the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders — who are “raging against the machine.” According to them, the people’s will is being subverted by obscure and archaic party rules. How legitimate is this claim?

On the Democratic side, I tried to unpack Sanders’s allegations a bit with my last post. In sum, I pointed out how Hillary Clinton is comfortably ahead in most measurable ways, including overall delegates, pledged delegates, and the popular vote itself. Indeed, nearly two-and-a-half million more voters have shown her to be their preferred candidate. The will of the people does in fact align with the trend of the Democratic Primary.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, might have a stronger claim. He’s far and away the leader in delegates (757-516 over Cruz, with New York about to substantially widen that gap) and the popular vote (his 8.3 million voters comfortably outpaces Cruz’s 6.3 million). Despite these leads, the party is clearly pushing back on his nomination bid, and it’s rather clear that many are hoping to block him from a majority of delegates before nominating someone else at an open convention. Thus, he’s claiming a broken system is undermining democracy. Does he have a legitimate case?

This may come as a surprise, but this #NeverTrumper and #ConventionChristmasWisher says he does not. My logic partially stems from our form of government. Remember, we are not a democracy. We’re a republic, and we can’t forget the reasons for that.

A sufficient number of our founding fathers distrusted the masses — fearing what some called “mob rule” — to the point where considerable limitations were put on citizens’ power over the federal government. In fact, under the original Constitution, citizens only directly elected the House of Representatives half of the legislative branch. U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislatures, a process not constitutionally amended until 1913 with the Seventeenth Amendment. The officials of other branches earned their positions like they do today: the Electoral College selected the president after fielding the advice of the people, while the president appointed federal judges with advise and consent of the Senate. (Insert 2016 SCOTUS vacancy joke here.) Ultimately, our founding fathers, hoping to avoid the “tyranny of the majority,” designed a government where a limited amount of American citizens could only elect one-sixth of the federal government. The other five-sixths were determined by what we could reasonably call “the establishment.”

Our founders made no constitutional provisions for political parties, to say nothing of presidential primaries, but the delegate system used by modern Republicans and Democrats jives nicely with their intentions. We don’t vote directly for candidates in primaries. We vote for delegates, and then they, in all their elitist wisdom, are expected to make reasonable choices for us. Sure, we give them advice, like we do all our elected officials, but ultimately the power is in their hands. Welcome to America.

There’s another argument for the convention — or, at least an argument against the candidate with the most votes and delegates clinching the nomination if they fall short of a majority. Hypothetically, a candidate can lead a three-candidate field with, say, 40 percent of the popular vote and delegates, but also be despised by the other 60 percent, who are split between, and okay with, the other two candidates. Maybe the 60 percent rank the two other candidates before the leader, but they can only give their vote to one of them.


In this hypothetical, democracy suggests Candidate A is the most popular, but it also says most voters would prefer Candidates B and C. The problem is our current voting system doesn’t allow for that. There is no mechanism to rank candidates on our ballots, nor is there a “run-off” election for presidential primaries, which could eliminate the third place candidate and allow the other two to go head to head to truly determine who the party wants.

Of course, this scenario isn’t too hypothetical, is it. Donald Trump leads the field with 37 percent of the vote despite a vocal chunk of the party dissenting. Is a majority of the party in opposition, though? We can’t know for sure, but it’s worth noting that most primary candidates with big leads usually run up the score by now, whereas Trump’s polling is still stuck mostly around 40 percent nationally. If ever a run-off would be helpful for a presidential primary, this is it. I’m not saying Trump wouldn’t reach a majority if we amended the system, but we don’t know either way.

Without ranking candidates or having a run-off, therefore, it’s convention delegates that will try to hash it out. If no candidate reaches 1,237 on the first ballot, most delegates are freed to change their vote for the second ballot. Essentially, since a majority of voters couldn’t reach a majority, it becomes the job of the delegates — the representatives of the people — to reach one.

It’s not a great solution, mind you. The type of people who attend a national convention are not representative of the average voter. For this reason, we can expect Trump to suffer if we get beyond the first couple ballots, and that’s not exactly fair. But it’s also grounded in a certain logic, and I don’t think it’s less fair than automatically giving it to someone who did not earn 50 percent of the vote.

Finally, if I can now lose my last vestiges of objectivity, allow me one paragraph to rage against Trump himself: good negotiators read the fine print, Mr. Trump. Running the executive branch, and military while coordinating the Western world is a hell of a lot more complicated than figuring out how delegates work. Great negotiators and leaders must understand details, nuance, and rules, not whine and make excuses. I doubt you’d be kind to President Obama if he claimed he didn’t understand the rules of some treaty and then blamed the rules for being bad. Understanding the rules is how you become a “winner.”

Okay, glad I got that off my chest.


2 thoughts on “Defending the Convention”

  1. Thank you for that last point. Drumpf complaining about the system being corrupt and broken when he clearly didn’t know he had to go out and win delegates, shows how inept and lazy he and his campaign is. Not that we didn’t know that; it’s just a comical reminder.

    Fascinating about the mathematical reasons for run-offs. They are common in Latin America (Peru having one right now), but your explanation helps show why they are indeed smart.


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