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Di Leo: Donald Trump and the American Primary Process



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By John F. Di Leo - 

You may remember a silly little youth comedy from the 1980s entitled “Real Genius,” in which the minor character Lazlo Hollyfeld has put his mathematical mind to work and decided to enter “the Frito-Lay Sweepstakes – No purchase necessary, enter as often as you want.”

So he entered 1,650,000 times.  “I should win 32.6% of the prizes,” he added, “including the car.”

When Chris Knight, star pupil, commented, “That kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?”… Lazlo shrugged and replied “They set up the rules.”

I have always wondered if I was alone in my anger when Lazlo won his 32.6% of the prizes in the end.  While it was certainly a testimonial to the character’s mathematical talent, it was morally wrong.  Yes, he just utilized a loophole in the system that others had created, but we in the audience knew that there was something fundamentally unfair about it.

It may have been “legal” for Lazlo to game the system this way, but it certainly wasn’t right.

The Primary Process in 2016

Much of the news in the 2016 campaign season has not been about political issues at all.  Not about economics (we are – truth be told – still stuck in an 8-year-long recession).  Not about foreign policy (our military strength has been whittled away to the point that we are now toothless on the world stage).   Not about social issues (the traditional family is under assault; our cities are aflame with drugs, burglary and murder).

No, much of the news in the 2016 presidential campaign, amazingly, is about the Process.

Is it fair, we are asked, that Bernie Sanders can win more votes than Hillary Clinton, but stay behind in delegates?  Is it fair, we are asked, that Donald Trump was winning everything in sight until March 22, and has been losing everything in sight since then? 

Is all this fair?

One could argue that the time to discuss the rules of the primary season  was between 2013 and 2015, not today, with the primary season upon us. 

  • Baseball players in the National League don’t traditionally interrupt the game in the sixth inning, yelling that they deserve a Designated Hitter like the American League has.
  • Junior High kids, losing at touch football, don’t normally scream in the third quarter that they’d be winning if only tackling were allowed.
  • And no professional golfer – one who’s great on drives but lousy at putting – has ever had the nerve to object to the fairness of a Master’s tournament because only the actual scores were counted. “I did better at drives! You shouldn’t count the putts too!  I won on the drives!”

And yet… despite the rules being in place for years… we see some candidates and their supporters, on both right and left, screaming that the rules are unfair. 

Why unfair?  Because they’re unexpectedly losing at the rules that they accepted when they began, by entering the race in the first place.

The American Primary Process

Perhaps what America needs is a review.  A short, simple review of what the presidential primary process – and in fact, the entire primary process – is for.

Let’s begin with a couple of points:

  • The American primary process is not designed for the benefit of any specific candidates.
  • The American primary process is not designed for the benefit of any specific voters.
  • The American primary process is not designed for the benefit of any specific issues.

The American primary system is designed for the benefit of political parties.

That’s all.  That’s what it’s for.

And by the way, while we’re at it… Nothing in the American primary process is unconstitutional, because the primary process is not mentioned in the Constitution.  The Framers never even dreamed of such a thing; they had hoped (idealistically, and arguably quite unrealistically) to avoid having political parties at all.

The Constitution calls for what we now call “General Elections” in which the voters – either directly or indirectly – select their representatives.  How the candidates get on that ballot is left up to the states.

We could just allow anybody to get on the ballot, and have ten, twenty, even hundreds of candidates at the General Election, but the nation quickly gravitated to the use of parties to make our General Elections smoother… and specifically, to the two-party-system, to make the General Election a clear choice for each voter.

This approach is far from perfect, but it is the approach we have.  There are other parties, but in most of United States elections, third parties can be nothing more than a protest or spoiler.

So.  We have a primary process, designed by the two major parties, to enable those parties to select the candidates whom they – the party members – believe will be their strongest champions in that November jousting tournament. 

The party members set out with an eye to November, to choose – from among their ranks – whomever they believe to be some balance of both the most winnable and the most aligned with their party’s principles.  That’s the goal, anyway.

So the parties meet in the summer, at a convention, and hammer out a platform of political positions, so that all the world can see what they stand for.  And they select their champions for the fall.

That’s what primaries are for.  They’re not for members, or regions, or candidates.  They exist to enable the parties to present as unified and winnable a team as possible, to support their political philosophy, with the hope of advancing their cause through the vehicle of elective office, by winning the General Election.

Hopes and Changes

Over the past hundred years, particularly the past fifty, more and more states gravitated toward allowing more and more participation in their primary campaigns.  Many states went from fully closed to partially closed to open to wide open.  Many states went from caucuses to primary elections. 

We have, today, a very broad mixture from state to state; every political candidate who knows what he’s doing, and every campaign consultant or activist worth his salt, knows of this variety, and makes sure to know the rules in the state (or states) in which he chooses to become involved.

Some definitions might be useful at this point:

A Caucus is a public meeting, at a specific time, in which candidates or their reps give a speech to those assembled, then they vote together to pick a candidate directly, or to pick indirectly, through delegates… sometimes with secret balloting, sometimes with open balloting.

A Primary Election is a regular voting day at a polling place, identical in appearance to the General Election except that does not actually pick the winner, just the party’s nominee… or delegates to select him.  And of course you declare which party’s nomination process you’ll be participating in, so the pollworkers know which ballot to give you (except for a couple of insane places that allow voters to criss-cross and participate in both parties’ primaries at the same time).

A Convention is the statewide and/or nationwide meeting of delegates elected at the caucuses and/or primaries, to hammer out the party platform and complete the nominee-selection process on behalf of the party membership.

An Open primary or caucus is one that doesn’t care at all about the actual party members, and welcomes any registered voter in to help select its nominee.  In New Hampshire, you can walk into the polling place unaffiliated, change your party to Republican, cast your ballot, then change back to unaffiliated on your way out!   This is like the Chicago Bears allowing the Green Bay Packers to select the Chicago Bears’ lineup for the next time they play each other.

A Mostly Open primary or caucus is one that limits participants, but not by much.  They may require you to declare your party by some date in advance of the Primary Election, but not far in advance.  A week or two, perhaps, or a month.  Participants may still not be adherents of that party at heart; they may not have the best interest of the party in mind when they make their choices. They may still be choosing their ballot based on which party’s race is more exciting, or based on an individual participant.

A Mostly Closed primary or caucus is one that limits participants by some longer, more demanding period of time, such as several months. In New York, for instance, one had to be on file as a Republican by October 2015 in order to participate in the 2016 primary.   While most candidates might be known by then, at least it’s reasonable to assume that the people selecting the Republican champion in such a contest, that far out, are probably people who actually think like Republicans, who hold positions generally like Republicans, and who hope that the Republicans will win in November.

A truly Closed primary or caucus is one in which you had to be on record as a member of that party for a really long time, generally a year or two, before the election.  The key here is that the members declared themselves before most of the candidate field was even known (except of course for incumbents).  This is the only system that really respects the party system and places ideology and principle above individuals. 

As an example of the truly closed primary system…  until the 1970s, in Illinois, one had to skip a primary election in order to vote in the other party’s primary.  If you voted in the Democrat primary in 1964, and you wanted to vote in the Republican Party’s primary in 1968, you had to skip the primary election of 1966 entirely.  This was your proving period; you skipped an election to demonstrate that you no longer thought of yourself as a Democrat, before the probation was lifted for future primary participation.

This method ensured that people participating in the job of choosing each party’s champion were people who wanted the party’s nominee to prevail in November.  It eliminated the common risks we see today, in which people participate in primaries due to the cult of personality of an individual candidate, or who participate in an effort to try to get their opposition to nominate a sure loser.

Donald Trump and the Whining Campaign

Donald Trump, in his unusual 2016 candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, has spent much of the second phase of the primary season complaining. 

Despite progressing from a longtime joke (he has threatened to run for president for 30 years, but never even ran for Congress or Governor, so most of us thought it was just talk) to an actual national frontrunner in a single year, Mr. Trump considers every stumble, every loss, to be the result of some inherent systemic design against him and his campaign.

Contrary to Mr. Trump’s personal opinion, these rules were not written with him in mind, so they were clearly not written to trip him up.  Each state goes about the primary process in its own way, some choosing closed methods, some choosing open, some choosing a primary, some choosing a caucus.  All the rules have been published and known for years.

Mr. Trump boasted in 2015 that he could run and win with free media, by running a campaign not as a traditional political campaign but as a concert tour:

  1. Fly into town,
  2. Excite an audience,
  3. Get their votes, and
  4. Move on to the next state.

And that method has proven to be effective in some states, particularly before his personality and issue stances were as well-understood as they are today.

 When he started, pundits laughed it off with the statement “Trump? Come on. He has no ground game…” meaning, he doesn’t have a structural support base in each state, made up of people who have cared about government, and been involved in government, for years and years.  Lacking such a support base to run individual state campaigns for delegates and voter organization, pundits believed he would have no chance.

And for months, such pundits (this humble writer included) appeared to have miscalculated.  Mr. Trump’s strategy seemed to be working.

Now in March and April, as we have seen Mr. Trump fire his state chairmen right before or right after their contests, or moved resources out of their states… and it has become clear that his lack of what we call “a ground game” is indeed hurting him. 

The people left behind, after his whirlwind campaign moves on, realize that they have committed themselves to a candidate without a long view, and they are regretting it. 

There are rules that bind most of these delegates on the first ballot, and they won’t break those rules, but… once unbound?  It is Trump’s own fault that more and more of them will leave him after that contractually-bound first ballot or two.

For two hundred years, there has only been one way to win the Presidency, and that’s by building a record in government service, either through high elective office or military command, or often in both.  No one has ever won in November without such a resume.  No one has ever won without having been a Governor, Senator, Cabinet Secretary, Speaker of the House, Vice President or victorious General. 

So, the parties – both parties, not just the Republicans – built a system designed to select someone with such a resume, with their own parties’ ideological stands, and a broad national base of support… both to ensure that their nominee is representative of his party’s rank and file, and to ensure a good chance at victory in November.

Donald Trump thought he could utilize loopholes in that system to sneak his way into the process.  He thought – despite having never been an active Republican, never having held elective or military office, never having articulated the ideology of the party – that his unusual salesmanship would enable him to capture the Republican nomination. 

He thought he could steal the Republican nomination away from the Republican Party with flash, with marketing, and with the rapid-fire energy of a clever Twitter account.

But the governmental experience, ideological rigor, and political skills of Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX) have begun to surface, and have proven that Ted Cruz is the more logical choice in the current field to represent the Republican Party in November.  That’s not to say he’s the perfect candidate either – no one is perfect – but out of these two, Senator Cruz is clearly the only presidential one, the one with broad national appeal and a campaign structure supportive of a national campaign.

So independent Donald Trump – who has changed party affiliation back and forth numerous times , and never met an opinion on which he couldn’t easily switch sides (sometimes within the same interview) – having tried to steal their own nomination away from the Republican Party, is apparently watching in shock as he sees it being taken back from him… legally… under the rules with which he never bothered to familiarize himself.

The wheels are coming off the Trump bus.  Whether it will happen in time to stop his wholesale destruction of the Republican Party – in a year in which the Republicans SHOULD have been able to win in a landslide, is yet to be seen.  But still… the wheels are coming off the Trump bus at last.

Lessons from a Fairy Tale

Remember the great book and film, “The Princess Bride,” set in a medieval fantasy kingdom?

Our hero – Wesley (Cary Elwes) – arrives on the scene, just in time to save the princess from the clutches of Vizzini, a mercenary kidnapper (Wallace Shawn).    

Vizzini arrogantly declares, “You’re trying to kidnap what I’ve rightfully stolen!”

Apparently, much like Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” Vizzini believed that laws applied to other people, not to him. 

Having identified the holes in security that enabled him to kidnap the girl in the first place, Vizzini thought his job was done as soon as he originally kidnapped the princess and escaped. 

Vizzini therefore found the idea of someone else undoing his crime to be – in effect – cheating.

That 1980s audience got the joke, and laughed along with Wesley at how ludicrous was Vizzini’s idea.  A lawbreaker couldn’t whine in public, and arrogantly declare that the law protected him from the forces of right!

But in modern America, the audience of 2016 understands, and, frighteningly, may even side with Vizzini. 

This is a world in which a burglar who’s shot by the homeowner in self-defense can sue the homeowner…

…A world in which a pervert can intentionally go into the public restroom or locker room meant for the opposite sex, and can sue the school for refusing to allow it…

…A world in which a Democrat can seek a Republican nomination for President, and attack the Republicans for failing to jump for joy at the idea, and for attempting to thwart such a fraud.

Perhaps the mythical Vizzini should just have waited a few centuries; his idea of the law protecting the criminal – rather than prosecuting the criminal for his crime – sadly may in fact have arrived after all.

Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based international trade lecturer, actor, writer, and recovering politician.  His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.  Follow John F. Di Leo on LinkedIn or Facebook, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.


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  1. “The American primary system is designed for the benefit of political parties.”
    The American primary system is not designed. It is a hodgepodge of methods and mechanisms established by over 100 state and territory political party organizations, by state legislatures and constitutional conventions, by voters through initiatives, and by the national party organizations.
    Elements of the system have been created at various times to… enable more democracy, protect incumbent officeholders, expand or diminish the influence of party officials, exclude black voters or block black candidates from winning (in certain states, in the past), let committed party members decide nominations, allow the whole public to decide nominations, save time, save money, limit ballot access by cranks, enable ballot access by dissidents…
    And some of these elements turned out to work against their intended purposes!
    Anyone can work to get the best results under the rules, and it is sour grapes to complain.
    The rules are The Rules, and everyone agreed to follow them.
    However, I am a frequent gamer (mostly tabletop war games with miniature figures and vehicles) and I can report that the phrase “rules lawyer” is definitely pejorative.

  2. The former twenty-three month prohibition on switching party affiliations was ruled to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court during the Seventies. Of course, the General Assembly has neglected to adopt remedial legislation (such as following the example of New York where voting requirements as to changing one’s party affiliation were affirmed as constitutional). Now, anyone can switch parties in Illinois at almost any time.

  3. Colorado GOP chairman tweeted we did it# Nevertrump. Then came the lie he was hacked when it was up,then deleted! Shame on the stoner state.maybe they didn’t think anyone would complain? I can see why? We have their preferred candidate Cruz calling Trump a whiner,sore loser,panic mode! No wonder no one liked him in college or the Senate! I hope he realizes they can turn on him just as easily.Truth is, voters of 2016 are watching,being involved,and communicating with others on the internet.We can google these rules! How to make sure their followed is a different story

  4. I have a B.A. in political science from the University of Arkansas. While I was there, I took a course called “State and Local Government,” and I learned that our country has three types of primaries, closed, open, and wide-open. John didn’t mention wide-open primaries. In those states (including California and Washington), each primary voter gets a large ballot that includes candidates of all parties. In those states, a primary voter could vote for a Republican for president, a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, and Republican for the U.S. House.

  5. “The American primary system is designed for the benefit of political parties.”
    Well, John, that’s the problem. The Republican party no longer represents the interests of its members. They only serve themselves and their donors. They didn’t stop Obamacare, funded Obama’s executive orders on illegal immigrants, funded Planned Parenthood, passed the cromnibus bill, have pushed for more H1-B visas, funded the “Syrian” refugee program, and on and on. So watching these “insiders” pick the candidate has made many voters extremely angry. Telling them it’s “about the rules” won’t cut it. Not this year.

  6. “For two hundred years, there has only been one way to win the Presidency, and that’s by building a record in government service, either through high elective office or military command, or often in both. No one has ever won in November without such a resume.”
    Obama didn’t have “such a resume.” He had 2 years in the Illinois Senate, hardly impressive.

  7. No, Concerned Taxpayer, BHO did have such a resume.
    He had about eight years, if memory serves, in the Illinois state senate, and four years in the US Senate.
    I’m not defending him – he’s an absolutely odious character – but if Obama had run for president as a freshman Illinois state senator, he would not have won.
    You need to have the title Secretary, or General, or Governor or Senator to win the White House.