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Of late, the GOP nomination process has favored those on their second try: Reagan failed in 1976 before winning in ’80; George H. W. Bush failed in 1980 before winning in ’88; Dole failed in 1988 before winning in 1996; McCain failed in 2000 before winning in ’08; and Romney failed in 2008 before winning in ’12. (We’ll come back to George W. Bush, the exception that proves the rule, in a moment.) But we shouldn’t be too hard on the GOP nominees failing the first time around because the process depends heavily on understanding the power of the GOP’s rotten boroughs.
To win the GOP nomination, a candidate must win a majority of the 2,472 delegates, which are allocated through a complicated series of formulas. The biggest problem is that these formulas create rotten boroughs, where a relative handful of voters in liberal parts of the country control more delegates than larger numbers of conservative voters elsewhere.
Let’s use an absurd hypothetical to demonstrate the actual absurdity of the 2016 nomination process. Let’s say the ghost of Nelson Rockefeller wins every delegate in every state that Barack Obama carried in 2012, while the reanimated corpse of Barry Goldwater wins every delegate in every state that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Rockefeller would win the Republican nomination with 1,231 delegates to Goldwater’s 1,166 (these don’t quite total 2,472 total delegates at stake in 2016 because I’m not counting the territories like Guam and Puerto Rico, but given that they tend to vote Democratic, they’ll likely wind up with Rockefeller rather than Goldwater). In other words, the blue states outweigh the red states when picking the nominee. The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen likes to make the point that somewhat conservative and moderate Republicans have a dominant role to play in the nomination process, and the rotten borough effect is a significant reason why. Some actual numbers might help illustrate what’s happening.
If Rockefeller wins Vermont with 30,000 votes (it cast 60,850 votes in the 2012 primary), then he’d get 16 delegates: three for the congressional district, 10 for the state at-large, and three more for each local member of the RNC. But if Goldwater wins TX-13 (Amarillo, the most Republican district in Texas), then he might only get three delegates, even though more than 100,000 Republicans will likely vote in that primary. It’s uncertain because Texas’s delegates are doled out in proportional representation (unless someone wins a majority of the vote statewide, in which case that person takes all the votes), so just winning big in that one district isn’t enough: to get the three delegates of TX-13 requires a candidate to win a lot elsewhere in the state. In other words, Rockefeller got each of his 16 delegates for less than 2,000 votes each, while Goldwater will need to win more voters than voted in all of Vermont just to get the three delegates at stake in TX-13. Repeat that across multiple states, and it should no longer surprise anyone that old Rockefeller Republican families like the Romneys and the Bushes keep winning GOP nominations. The northeastern and midatlantic states are filled with rotten boroughs, which is why Gov. Chris Christie might be underrated. He’s probably the candidate closest to easy delegate pick ups in Delaware, New York City, and New England.
Further, how the delegates wind up with each candidate get seriously screwy. Some states are winner take all, others use proportional representation, still others use conventions, and others yet (like Texas in the example earlier) use proportional representation but become winner-take-all when the winning candidate clears a certain percentage of the vote. It’s like a chaotic videogame where you probably need to have played and lost at least once to have a chance to win. That probably explains why George W. Bush was able to win on his first outing: he was, effectively, a junior staffer on his father’s campaigns and already knew how to play.
We cannot totally eliminate some areas getting more weight than they deserve, but we can try to have it make more sense. If RNC Chair Reince Priebus (or his successor) wants a legacy, fixing the GOP nomination process so it better reflects the GOP’s voters would be a good start. Here’s my proposal to reform the process:
The first principle of my plan is that the process should give more weight to districts where the GOP is winning elections. Under the current system, it seems as though the less likely it is for Republicans to control their local government, the greater their say is when picking presidential candidates. Second, we should place less emphasis on the states and more emphasis on congressional districts, which better reflect the party’s base. Gerrymandering is less of a problem than you might think. Republicans tend to lose at gerrymanders in states where they aren’t winning much, like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland, but they tend to win at them in states like Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. The net effect of gerrymandering could be to have a presidential candidate represent the base more closely than a neutral drawing of the lines.
My proposed system is that the delegates should be determined by congressional districts and that these districts should be weighted according to elected officials, winner take all in each district. Each congressional district should get one delegate by default (hey, even Vermont and San Francisco have some Republicans). If the district is represented by a Republican in the US Congress, add four delegates, on the principle that we ought to give a boost to outposts of conservatism in otherwise liberal states, such as Staten Island (NY-11). Then, add an extra delegate for each each Republican governor or US senator representing that district.
So under this system, districts can range from being worth one to eight delegates. Here are some examples:
- CA-12, San Francisco, would be worth only one delegate, as it isn’t represented by any Republicans in the governor’s mansion or in its congressional delegation.
- MA-8, South Boston, would be worth two delegates, thanks to Republican Governor Charlie Baker.
- IL-3, Chicago, would be worth three delegates, thanks to Governor Bruce Rauner and Sen. Mark Kirk
- TX-35, Austin, would be worth four delegates, thanks to Governor Greg Abbott and Sens. Cornyn and Cruz.
- NY-11, Staten Island, would be worth five delegates thanks to Republican Rep. Daniel Donovan.
- Montana, an at-large state, would be worth six delegates thanks to Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines.
- FL-1, Chumuckla, would be worth seven delegates thanks to Rep. Jeff Miller, Sen Rubio, and Governor Scott.
- TX-1, Tyler, would be worth the maximum eight delegates.
Right now, the relative handful of Republicans in states liberal leaning states get a hugely disproportionate say in the presidential nominee. For example, California gets 172 delegates to Texas’s 155. This is crazy, since California Republicans run next to nothing in their state, while Texas Republicans utterly dominate theirs. Under my plan, California would get 109 delegates to Texas’s 244.
My proposal isn’t perfect, since some places will still get more say than they deserve, but it moves the nomination process in a more representative direction. It also means that we might finally start getting GOP nominees that reflect the base.
The rotten boroughs are probably going to pull the eventual nominee leftward this year, but maybe we can get smart about it by 2020.Published in