Donald Trump’s path to the Republican presidential nomination was paved largely thanks to the exclusionary rules and the poor political judgment of those who loathe (or claim to loathe) the acerbic billionaire the most: the GOP Establishment.
Call it the ultimate political equivalent of the law of unintended consequences.
To ensure that the establishment’s chosen candidate was comfortably nominated, their collaborators in the party leadership of several key states manipulated the primary and caucus calendar and the delegate allocation rules to create an artificial delegate avalanche and firewall.
Large winner take all states such as Arizona, Florida, and Ohio gave their considerable delegate pots exclusively to the candidate who got just one more vote than they guy who ran second, even if the first place candidate failed to receive a majority.
In Florida, Trump pocketed all 99 delegates despite having won 46% of the vote- while the candidates who received over one million votes received no representation at all in the form of delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Florida’s winner take all system is intended to crush grassroots candidates who lack the benefit of generous and favorable media exposure and large sums of campaign cash to advertise across a state with several expensive media markets.
Florida’s GOP operates with the mindset that their primary should be manipulative not competitive. Four years ago, they attempted to double down on their game by not just having winner take all but orchestrated a calendar jump to the “reserved” period to essentially end the nomination battle in their state.
The Florida GOP violated two of the most important rules of the RNC: holding their primary too early and allocating their entire delegation to the first place candidate during the section of the calendar that mandated proportional allocation. Despite having committed two violations, Florida self-imposed only a single penalty and the RNC let them get away with it.
South Carolina, long considered to be the Establishment’s southern firewall that saved Bush I, Dole, Bush II, and a co-opted McCain, engineered their primary so that it is essentially winner take all. Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, the Palmetto State is practically a first to the post, winner-take-most system.
While the truly proportional other three early states handed out delegates to five candidates, the technically proportional South Carolina primary gave ALL of their 50 delegates to just one contender: Trump – who had won only 32% of the total votes cast.
South Carolina gets around the “proportional” mandate on states on the front end of the primary calendar by claiming that it’s possible for multiple candidates to win congressional districts and thus earn delegates. However in a crowded field, it’s more than likely that the candidate who ran first statewide, even by narrow margin, is likely to finish on top in many if not all of the congressional districts. Data from previous South Carolina primaries show that the second place candidate have walked away with between 2 and 6 delegates. That’s hardly proportional.
The South Carolina rules violate the spirit of the proportional delegate allocation mandate – which is likely what the party bosses intended. The net effect of these states was to give Trump 207 delegates by winning three states while the combined opposition received a grand total of zero delegates.
The Republican Establishment also blundered tactically against Trump, first failing to recognize the potency of his candidacy, and then failing to comprehend their own unpopularity. The writing was on the wall from 2012 when Romney was put on the ropes by an underfunded Rick Santorum.
Jeb Bush had no business seeking the Republican nomination and his polling pointed to a major embarrassment to the Bush brand once voting commenced. Yet Bush not only got stomped in the first three contests but more significantly, served as the perfect punching bag for Trump in the debates. Or put another way, Jeb made Trump look good.
After the South Carolina primary, with empirical data confirming what the polls were indicating, the Republican Establishment should have coalesced around the lone candidate who still had a shot at stopping Trump: Ted Cruz. But that didn’t happen.
Both Bush and South Carolina US Senator Lindsey Graham grudgingly backed Cruz, issuing tepid statements of support that did not provide Cruz much of a bounce.
To his credit Romney, who was more cognizant of what was happening around the country, was much more enthusiastic in his support for the Texas senator and helped deliver all of Utah’s delegates to Cruz.
With the exception of Romney, the Republican establishment seemed more comfortable with Trump than Cruz.
However the Republican Establishment’s greatest failure was their inability (or unwillingness) to get Ohio Governor John Kasich out of the race. Kasich’s presence on the ballot split the anti-Trump vote in Michigan, Illinois, and other states, preventing Cruz from having the one-on-one matchup against the reality television show star before Trump gathered a load of delegates in the northeast and unstoppable momentum.
Kasich’s presence in the race also spoiled the last best hope for a game-changer: a Cruz-Trump debate.
In a move that defied all good political judgment, Kasich refused to go along with debates when the field was narrowed to three candidates. Trump’s lack of participation even in a low-ratings debate just featuring Cruz and Kasich would have had consequences, just as the billionaire’s boycott of the debate held on the eve of the Iowa caucuses contributed to his defeat in the Hawkeye State.
Though Trump has railed against the Republican Establishment, and plenty of prominent figures in the latter have signed up for the #NeverTrump caucus post-nomination, the emergence of country club owner Trump as the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee was largely facilitated by the machinations of Republican Party’s Country Club wing.