US Presidential primaries – FAQs after Super Tuesday III

The biggest question on the minds of almost everyone following the US Presidential election race is: can be stopped? I will cover that question last as it is the most consequential but there are a number of other questions that Kiwi followers of the race might have. Let’s cover off the Democrats side first as things are more clear cut there.

Can Sanders beat Clinton?
No. Even if he was coming close to Clinton in the recent Democrat primaries (thus garnering only slightly less delegates proportionally as all Democrat primaries/caucuses award delegates proportionally), the presence of the so-called super delegates (who are pretty much all pledged to support Hillary-the current super delegate split is 467 to 26) would ensure he’d lose the nomination. However, last night on Super Tuesday 3, despite Clinton’s shock lost last week in Michigan, Clinton bested Sanders by substantial margins and in a series of delegate rich states such as and Illinois. The delegate count stands at 1,599 vs 844 or almost 2:1.

Will Sanders drop out soon?
Unlikely. He has plenty of money; actually more than any other candidate running for either party and he has captured the activist base of the Democrat party and enjoys an almost iconic status among the young and idealist more left leaning voters. Sanders will continue to pick off the odd state with favourable demographics (such as his narrow win in Missouri last night) but it will be impossible for him to overhaul Clinton’s lead. Sanders will be secretly hoping that Clinton will be forced to drop out of the race if indicted for breaches of intelligence secrecy laws with her use of an external private email server to transmit top secret material during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Will Clinton be indicted?
A $64,000 question. In terms of the sheer volume of secret material that was transmitted via her unsecured home brew email server (over 2,000 emails marked secret and 22 marked with the very highest designation: Top Secret/Special Access Programs), the answer should be yes. The 22 SAP emails had material so sensitive to national security that they could not be released by the State Department (under the court ordered release) even in redacted form. General Petraeus was indicted for passing a smaller amount of less secret material to his girlfriend who was writing his memoirs. If Clinton was an employee at an intelligence agency, she’d be in jail already but Clinton is no ordinary person. The FBI seems to be playing a straight bat with their investigation but the granting of immunity from prosecution to the man tasked by Clinton to set the whole separate email system up is an ominous sign for her. The FBI Director James Comey is known to be independent and unswayed by political machinations but the decisions to prosecute will not be his – that will be made by the Department of Justice and by three layers of Obama political appointees including the Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Will Obama throw Clinton under the bus? Given the detrimental effect of an indictment then leading to a Republican win, not likely. But any decision not to indict runs the risk of mass leaking of the facts by the FBI investigators of Clinton’s reckless disregard for national security that even the Democrat leaning media would find hard to ignore.

If she’s indicted, what might happen?
Democrat insiders are reportedly very nervous about Clinton and not just because of the vulnerability over the email server issue. Plan B however is to not let Sanders prevail at the Convention as he is deemed to be too left wing to be electable even against a flawed candidate like Trump. Most likely they will parachute Vice President Joe Biden into the Convention as a ‘salvation’ candidate whom the delegates will rally around to win in the November General Election. There is no other option as the Democrats’ front bench is so devoid of talent.

Switching now to the Republican side which is where all the drama is!

Can Trump still win a majority of delegates?
Yes, but he would have to win the remaining primary races by a margin of 53% or more which is doable but above the average of the mid 40’s he has been achieving in recent primaries. Trump is still going to face Cruz and Kasich whose combined vote will likely deny Trump the majority he seeks. If all remaining contests were winner-take-all this wouldn’t matter but they aren’t and there are still states where Cruz will likely win (e.g. Utah). Most intelligent analysts of the race are picking the race will go to what is called an open or contested Convention.

What is an open (or contested) Convention?
The US political parties formally nominate their Presidential flag bearer at their quadrennial conventions held in the mid/late summer of the Presidential election year. Most conventions are a carefully staged managed coronation as the party’s preferred nominee has emerged from the primary election season with a majority of delegates. In the case of the Republican Party, it has 2,472 delegates from each of the states with delegates proportionate to each state’s population. The GOP nominee has to win a majority of the delegates or 1,273 [edit 1,237]. Delegates arrive at the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18th nominally bound to their candidate (and some are more bound than others as each states’ electoral laws and thus internal party primary/caucus/nominating procedures differ). If no candidate comes with a majority of the delegates, then no candidate can win the first round of voting. Depending on governing state election laws and internal state GOP procedures, most of the delegates become unbound in the second round leaving them free to support a different candidate than the one they came to represent. The outcome will depend on a myriad of factors but most heavily on the respective strengths of the 2nd and 3rd ranked and the on the horse trading and enticements that can be made. Abraham Lincoln for instance arrived at the 1860 Republican Convention in 4th place and after 4 rounds of voting, emerged as the victor due to the shifting allegiances to his three higher polling rivals as each failed to win an outright majority with each voting round.

Could Ted Cruz ever manage to win a majority of delegates before the Convention?
Cruz currently holds 397 delegates to Trump’s 646 (the remaining delegates are distributed: Rubio 169 Kasich 142  Carson 8 Bush 4 Fiorina, Paul and Huckabee 1 each). For Cruz to win outright, he’d need to win the remaining races by a margin of around 70%. Based on current trends, that’s a near impossibility. Cruz’s only pathway to the nomination is to deny Trump his majority and secure nomination on a second or subsequent ballot at the Convention.

But won’t it be easier for Cruz if Rubio and Kasich both drop out leaving it as a one on one race?
First off whilst Rubio has suspended his campaign yesterday after his heavy loss to Trump in his home state of Florida, Kasich’s clear win in Ohio (his home state where he has had some success as Governor) will buoy him to continue. Some of the establishment donors that initially funded Bush, then switched to Rubio for a time, will donate to Kasich enabling him to keep running. He will fancy his chances in Wisconsin (a winner take all primary where Kasich enjoys the support of Governor Walker who remains popular amongst WI GOP voters). Kasich cannot win (indeed his pathway to a majority is he’d have to win 90% of votes in the remaining primaries) but he will stay in to bolster his bargaining power at the Convention.

Primary voters don’t move in simple binary ways so to assume that everyone not voting for Trump is vehemently anti Trump is a mistake. Let’s assume Kasich did drop out, it is wrong for Cruz’s campaign to assume that all of the Rubio and Kasich voters would come to him. A majority would but not all of them. Cruz is banking on that happening and that Trump is stuck at 45%. The other thing is that not all the remaining primaries are winner take all and so even if Cruz was to consolidate the anti-Trump vote behind him, Trump would still win enough delegates to deny Cruz a majority. California is the biggest prize awarding a whopping 341 delegates (172 from the primary then 169 alternates) but it delegates incrementally to the candidate who wins a plurality in each of the 51 Congressional districts making it very costly and complicated for one candidate to prevail. Its primary isn’t until June 2nd making it the first time in living memory that a California primary has any influence on a nomination race. For those who want to stop Trump reaching 1,271 [edit 1,237] then the longer it is a three-man race, the greater the likelihood of a contested Convention. Thus the Cruz v Trump head to head race that Cruz so desires, will not be happening until Kasich runs out of money and starts to poll so low that he can’t cross minimum vote thresholds in proportional states to be awarded delegates.

If he wins 1,271 [edit 1,237]delegates before the Convention, no – he will be the nominee. But if he doesn’t, then look to the party establishment to use a variety of tactics to deny him the nomination. The playbook to do this is detailed by Sasha Issenberg of Bloomberg. Reader Digest version: the selection of GOP delegates to the Convention is a shadow hidden primary campaign of back room deals, arm twisting, granting of favours and controlled by state and level Republicans who are much more likely to support a mainstream candidate. Whilst a few states force their delegates to stay bound to their candidate throughout, almost all states allow their delegates to be unbound after the first ballot. The race is on to fill these delegate slots across the country with anti-Trump people who can be counted on to desert Trump after the first ballot. Arcane rules will be used to challenge any questionable primary or caucus results (e.g. the known chaos at the Nevada caucus and the public role of Trump supporters in dominating enrollment procedures at key caucus sites). Some states control the delegate appointment process in the hands of very few. For example, in South Carolina you can only be a delegate if you attended the 2015 State GOP Convention and that was held before Trump even announced his candidacy. The delegate appointments are controlled by Governor Nicki Hayley known to be anti-Trump and will be supported by both SC Senators Graham and Scott who both supported other than Trump. Because Trump won every SC congressional district, he was awarded all of its 50 delegates but he could find come July that none of the 50 will support him in the second round.

Stage 2 of secret campaign to deny Trump the nomination would occur at the Convention. Senior party officials will control the all-important Rules Committee and we know that this has been used to control convention floor activities before. Fearing a Ron Paul revolution in 2012, Romney ensured that the Rules Committee imposed Rule 40 requiring that a candidate can only receive votes at the convention if they had won a majority in 8 states effectively shutting down Paul’s potentially rowdy and disruptive delegates. Control of convention floor procedures down to who is the Sargent at Arms and can legally eject querulous delegates, will be how the establishment will handle the likely uproar from delegates who are loyal to Trump if he cannot win in subsequent voting rounds.

If Trump does not get to 1,271 [edit 1,237] and the Convention is contested, we’re going to see rambunctious political theatre not seen since the infamous Democrat Convention in 1968. Buckle up people – we’re going to be in for a rough ride. There are lots of other questions such as: if Trump is denied the nomination won’t he and his supporters get ugly and won’t he run as a third party candidate? If it is Hillary v Trump, is the conventional wisdom that Hillary will easily beat him true? Could the GOP establishment parachute in someone like Mitt Romney into the Convention (IMO a silly idea despite my support for Romney in 08 and 12) and could Trump continue to defy all political conventions (as he has to date) and still win the nomination and the Presidency? These questions will need to wait – there is still some water to go under the exciting and chaotic bridge that is the 2016 GOP Primary!

[Disclaimer: I supported Rubio from the earliest beginnings of the campaign but will vote for Cruz in the upcoming Arizona primary next week and then for whoever is the Republican nominee in the November election even if it is Trump or some mainstream candidate like foisted on the party at the convention. Either is preferable to Clinton.]

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