Opinion: How Trump could lose the primaries but win the nomination

Here’s another headache for Republicans who don’t want to see Donald Trump as their presidential nominee in 2024: There’s a mechanism that could allow him to get the party’s nomination even if he’s defeated in its primaries and caucuses.

It has to do with the decentralized way that Republicans decide their nomination — which is different from the strict procedures that Democrats have mandated for state parties since the 1970s.

Republicans do have some national rules affecting the calendar and delegate selection, but in many ways the states are free to do what they want.

The issue is the difference between delegate allocation and delegate selection. Allocation is about which candidate the delegates to the convention are bound to, or supposed to vote for. Selection is about which people are chosen as delegates.

On the Democratic side, the two are tightly connected. Candidates have “slates” of delegates; effect, they choose their own delegates. For Republicans, allocation and selection are often separate procedures. Primaries or caucuses determine how many delegates a candidate will get at the convention. But in many states the delegates themselves are chosen separately, in procedures that generally allow party insiders to dominate.

There is no definitive count of how many delegates are selected this way, and it could still change as states finalize their rules for 2024. But rules maven Josh Putnam tells me that in the majority of cases — perhaps the “vast majority” — delegate selection is separate from delegate allocation.

In 2016, when party insiders almost universally opposed Trump, quite a few delegates who were bound to Trump at the convention actually supported someone else. Yet they voted as they were supposed to and Trump became the nominee.

Now a lot of party insiders are strong Trump supporters, and it’s likely that a lot of those who are selected as delegates will be loyal to Trump, regardless of who they are pledged to. The danger is clear: Even though they may arrive at the convention pledged to someone else, those delegates could support Trump once they’re at the convention.

Here’s how it could play out. The convention is the ultimate governing body of the party, and it is free to change the rules if a majority of the delegates want to. If someone other than Trump has enough pledged delegates to become the nominee, but a majority of delegates at the convention are loyal to Trump, the convention’s rules committee could draft a proposal to “unbind” the delegates. They could then vote their personal preference, rather than for the candidate they were allocated to. I would also expect the credentials committee to be busy, with challenges to unseat some delegates based on supposedly fraudulent results — a procedure that, if successful, could widen Trump’s delegate margin.

All of this would be perfectly within bounds. If Trump had enough votes to change the rules at the convention, there would be nothing anyone could do to stop him.

If Trump winds up with, say, 30% or 40% of the allocated delegates, with someone else just over 50%? Then who the delegates are, as opposed to who they’re pledged to, will be relevant. And if they’re Trump people, they’re going to act like Trump people.

Any Republicans who don’t want Trump to be their nominee should be working now to change the party’s rules and prevent him from subverting the delegate selection process. Because if we know anything about Trump, it’s that the prospect of winning ugly by overturning the will of the voters doesn’t seem to faze him. Trump was willing to ignore the Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021; in July 2024, if it comes to that, he’ll certainly be willing to exploit any procedural wiggle room at the Republican convention.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg columnist. ©2023 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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