Donald Trump has been attacking the Republican delegate selection process, and while he makes some good points about the lack of openness, the low or non-existent participation of voters in some cases, and the arcane rules governing delegate selection in some states, he’s wrong to call it a “corrupt” system. It’s not corrupt. It’s just confusing.
In my former political life, I was heavily involved in the delegate process, both nationally and in-state. Every state has its own rules about delegate selection. Some are chosen through a pretty straightforward primary election. Others hold caucuses, and still others hold conventions. Some are winner-take-all, others are a mish-mash.
In 2008 in West Virginia, after serving as executive director of the state GOP, I was by this time a private consultant for candidates in the Mountain State. The state party had changed its delegate selection process for the presidential campaign. They did it mostly to raise money for the party through hefty entry fees paid by the campaigns to have their candidates’ names on the convention ballot, and to raise awareness by holding the convention in February and making the state party more relevant.
So 18 delegates were to be selected at a first-ever state GOP convention in February as part of a Super Tuesday featuring 21 states. Only nine delegates would be selected in the West Virginia primary election later in the spring.
I was the state director for the Fred Thompson campaign. Colleagues of mine were the state directors for various other candidates, including Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. Late in 2007, all of us began battling to sign up Republicans across the state to commit as delegates for our respective candidates at the state convention.
Thompson’s campaign had waned nationally by the time the West Virginia convention was getting close, mainly due to Fred’s ambivalent approach to campaigning. But in West Virginia he was strong, and we had signed up hundreds of pledged delegates, which is how the convention worked. We had secured support from the majority of Republicans in the House of Delegates (West Virginia’s version of the House of Representatives). Fred’s lovely wife, Jeri, came in for a successful event we hosted.
Right before the convention, after finishing third in South Carolina in late January, Thompson announced he was dropping out of the race, as had Giuliani. Romney was the frontrunner in West Virginia. When more than 1,100 delegates from across the state gathered in Charleston at the convention site, Romney, Huckabee and Paul all arrived that morning to make personal remarks to the delegates. All the cable news networks were there, meaning the state party’s plan to get more attention had paid off.
The West Virginia convention balloting would be conducted early in the day, and the Romney forces were looking forward to announcing by mid-day that he had carried the West Virginia convention. That would give him momentum among those still casting ballots in the other 20 contests going on throughout the afternoon and evening that same day.
For a variety of reasons – some national, some local – Romney was the last candidate the rest of us wanted to win. Most of the Thompson delegates we had signed up had agreed to support McCain, who came in with very few committed delegates of his own. A good friend of mine was the McCain director, and with my guy out I was working informally with his campaign at the convention.
In a quick meeting just before balloting began, the other campaign operatives all agreed that if Romney did not win on the first ballot, we would ask our combined delegates to support the candidate who finished second. Everyone was determined to deny Romney the win in West Virginia.
In the first round, Romney led but came up short of the necessary 50 percent. Huckabee finished second. So on the second ballot the plan went into action, and Huckabee won with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Romney.
When the result was final, the Romney leaders and delegates erupted in anger. All sorts of accusations were made. Some Romney supporters were literally swearing at me and other campaign officials as they walked out of the convention hall, realizing that we had intentionally combined forces to deny Romney the victory. Gotta love politics.
The turn of events was a big story nationally. NBC reported that there was “old-fashioned deal-making in West Virginia,” and said, “Like an episode of ‘Survivor,’ West Virginia’s Republican convention ended Tuesday with temporary allies voting off a front-runner.” The reporter added, “Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the pre-convention favorite, was left to complain loudly about last-minute maneuvers.” It was the beginning of the end for Romney in 2008.
But it was all done according to the rules. The difference between the Romney campaign and the other campaigns involved in the state convention was that we understood and applied the rules. The Romney folks did not. Romney’s entire effort at the West Virginia convention was predicated on winning on the first ballot. They had no plan beyond that. They had not tried to woo the delegates of the other campaigns or make any contingency plans for second or third ballots.
That’s the way conventions work. That’s how the delegate process works. Trump has so far run a campaign based on mass appeal. But when it comes to delegates state by state, the devil is in the details, something Ted Cruz has used to good advantage and which Trump has seemed to finally realize based on some recent hires he has made.
I still think Trump can walk into the national convention in Cleveland with the 1,237 delegates he needs. But if he doesn’t, it could be a convention to remember, with deal making, backroom politics and a contentious outcome – all fair, all according to the rules.
As a side note, the 2008 Republican convention in West Virginia was so controversial and resulted in so much anger that the WVGOP decided never to hold one again.
The Republican National Committee probably doesn’t have that luxury. But it might be time for both parties to consider some drastic changes to delegate selection and conventions so voters aren’t left wondering why the candidate who has the most delegates going in doesn’t always win the nomination coming out.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.