Thoughts From the Frontline – Republican Presidential Candidates: A Little Chaos Is A Good Thing by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics
A Special Edition of Thoughts from the Frontline
Longtime readers know that I rarely delve into partisan politics. That’s not the usual focus of this letter. While I am sure that most readers suspect that I generally lean Republican, I try not to let that enter into our macroeconomic and investment discussions. And I’m not really going to change that policy today. What I do want to talk about are the rather arcane topics of how the delegates to a national convention are chosen and what a “brokered convention” would actually look like. I think if you understand what is potentially brewing, you will find the ups and downs of the primary process much more interesting.
The results from Iowa last night indicate that there is a real potential for the Republican Party to go into its convention in Cleveland in late July without a de facto winner. We haven’t seen something like that happen in the Republican Party in a very long time – certainly not in the memory of anybody that I know.
There is a great deal of speculation as to what a “brokered convention” for the Republican Party would mean. Given a change/manipulation of the rules by the Romney camp at the last convention, it could mean utter chaos and a floor fight. That said, even the old rules would mean chaos, though of a different sort. Since very few in the media have ever been anywhere near an honest-to-God floor fight, let alone run one at a major convention, let me give you a little “inside baseball” as to what could happen.
I do this from the perspective of someone who was heavily involved in Texas and national Republican Party politics up through the early 2000s. I held Republican Party offices and chaired state committees. I was also a national delegate in 1996. I have been involved in and have run “floor fights” over rules and policies and platforms at a convention twice the size of the national convention. To say that the process can be chaotic and unruly is an understatement.
National conventions have become very scripted affairs (for both parties). We know who the nominee is going in, and they want to make sure their message is highlighted, that unity is stressed, and that the public receives a very on-target message. While state conventions can be raucous, nothing much really happens at the national convention… except behind the scenes, safely away from impressionable voters. You don’t see floor fights: you see sweetness and love and everybody holding hands and expressing unity in order to defeat the bad guys (of the other party). It’s the same for both parties.
Being a delegate to the national convention is typically a reward for hard work on behalf of the party. Delegates to the national convention are selected by the rules of each state. Unless you are a high state party official or leader, you typically don’t get to go back year after year in the larger or more active states. That honor is spread around among people who have done long duty in the trenches – which is why you don’t see that many young faces at national conventions. The young faces you do see are usually not selected by the congressional districts but are typically at-large delegates, picked precisely because the party wants some young faces on hand and the young people involved are activists in their college or community.
In most states, delegates to the Republican National Convention are selected at the congressional district level during the state convention. You run to be a delegate, typically against several other people from your congressional district; and your fellow state convention delegates from your congressional district vote to see which three people from your congressional district will go to the national convention. Quite often, you actually have to do a little campaigning and phone calling in order to line up votes, just as any politician would.
You pledge to vote for the presidential candidate designated by either the voters or the caucus. For most states, that means you are bound to vote for the designated candidate through one roll-call vote. There are some states, like Georgia, where you are bound for two roll-call votes. That means if you’re a Trump delegate, you will have to vote for Trump, no matter what your personal beliefs are, for at least one or two rounds. You agree to do to that because you really want to go to the national convention. Now, you may be a very passionate Trump supporter – or maybe not so much – but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Each state gets ten at-large delegates, with the states designating their own rules as to how those delegates get selected. Each state also gets three district delegates for each representative it has in Congress. There are also “bonus” delegates. If your state voted for the Republican presidential candidate last time around, you get bonus delegates. You also get a bonus delegate for each Republican senator you have elected. You get a bonus delegate for a Republican governor and and another one if you control your state chambers.
Thus Idaho gets 13 more delegates than Hawaii does, even though they are roughly equal in terms of the size of their congressional delegations, because Idaho is a thoroughly Republican state and gets 13 bonus delegates. California has the most delegates at 172 but gets no bonus delegates. Far less populous Texas has 155 delegates, 34 of whom are bonus. Smaller Republican states command a somewhat disproportionate number of delegates compared to the size of their populations. There is an excellent summary at a website called The Green Papers, where you can find out how many delegates your state gets. As an aside, Guam, Puerto Rico, Samoa, Washington DC, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands (where a population of just 50,000 gets 13 delegates) are represented by a total of 78 delegates, which as a bloc is almost 6% of the delegates needed for election. I have no idea how their delegates are selected. Remember the hanging chads in 2000? If the convention roll-call votes are really tight, you could see these small islands plus DC actually being the equivalent of Broward County in Florida.
Any state voting before March 15 has to allocate delegates proportionally, so that you could see multiple candidates getting delegates. Thus Cruz, Trump, and Rubio walk away from the Iowa caucuses with almost exactly the same number of delegates. However, states that have primaries after March 15 can, at their choosing, make it winner take all, which means that whichever candidate gets the most votes wins all the state’s delegates – even if the candidate’s vote total is less than 30%. Except… many of those winner-take-all states allocate their delegates at the congressional district level, which means that different candidates can win in different congressional districts, thereby splitting up the vote. You probably didn’t pay attention to this last night, but there was a significant difference in preferences among various Iowa counties. The same thing will hold true