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Choosing presidential candidates 'feels like democracy,' but reality is more complicated

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in New York's Trump Tower building, Monday, April 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Ted Cruz outmaneuvered Donald Trump in the fight for Republican delegates again this weekend, securing the support of more than 50 delegates across several states, including some where Trump won primaries, and generating more angry tweets from the front-runner for the presidential nomination.

Many of these delegates will be bound to vote for Trump on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in July, but if Trump does not win a majority of delegates by then, they would be free to support other candidates on subsequent ballots.

With Cruz trailing too far behind in the delegate count to have much of a shot at getting to 1,237 before the convention, his campaign has adopted a strategy of fighting on the ground state-by-state to install his supporters as delegates. Each state has its own rules and procedures that the Cruz team has studied and that Trump's people seem to have less of a grasp on.

In Georgia, where Trump won the March 1 primary with nearly 40 percent of the vote, most delegates chosen this weekend would back Cruz at a contested convention.

The Trump campaign has portrayed this system as "rigged," while Cruz has mocked him for throwing a "Trumpertantrum" and argued the rules are working the way they are supposed to.

Similar complaints about the nomination process have arisen in the Democratic race, where hundreds of unbound superdelegates could sway the vote for or against the winner of the primaries. As elected officials and Democratic National Committee members, most superdelegates are backing the establishment's choice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has expressed concerns in the past about the power these people wield over the nomination, but his campaign has also recently spoken of attempting to change the minds of some. Clinton supporters have alleged that such a move would subvert the will of voters.

Although the nomination process provides the appearance that voters are choosing their party's candidate, that is not exactly the way it has ever worked. State parties decide how they want to select their delegates and how much input the average voter will have, and then the delegates pick the nominee.

"People are voting, and that certainly feels like democracy," said Stephanie Martin, assistant professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University, but the reality is more complicated.

The rules of the game were set by the parties on the state level and agreed to by the candidates long ago. In a state like Colorado or Wyoming, that may mean choosing delegates through county conventions instead of traditional primaries. It also means that Trump voters have little recourse if a Cruz backer is chosen as a delegate to represent their district.

Experts note that for all of its flaws, the current system is vastly more democratic than the way things were done prior to 1972, when the decision was entirely in the hands of party bosses.

"The theory was this was anti-machine politics," said Michael Traugott, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. "Give the people a voice...It clearly weakened the role of the parties in the nomination process."

"It is appropriately weighted toward the voters," said Matt Dallek, assistant professor of political management at George Washington University, but the party elites still have a say.

The RNC Rules Committee retains the power to change the rules at the convention, and at least one committee member has suggested it has the authority to unbind all delegates even on the first ballot. Similarly, on the Democratic side, superdelegates are free to change their candidate at any time.

As national organizations representing a specific platform of ideas in elections at all levels of government, political parties have an interest in selecting the candidate best suited to lead the ticket in the fall. The party insiders who Trump is accusing of rigging the system are generally the people most committed to those ideals, but they are also the ones least likely to be drawn to his message.

According to Dallek, the parties want to ensure that the nominee is "not so extreme that they can't win the general election." It may be unfair in some ways, but he added there have always been "significantly undemocratic" elements of American democracy.

"Even though [the nomination process] is deeply flawed, it is also pretty effective at balancing a number of interests," he said.

Dallek pointed to two advantages of allowing each state to designate its own procedures. One is that it respects the fundamental principle of states' rights, and the other is that it forces each candidate to prove their ability to manage a complex national operation before voters hand them control of the federal government.

Traugott also observed that the voters who participate in primaries and caucuses are typically a small and ideologically extreme percentage of the state population. Party leaders may want to keep them from nominating someone too far from the mainstream, so the system is intended to give power to the people while also acknowledging political reality.

While the political parties have a strong interest in maintaining their power over the nominating process, any effort to exert control at this point risks reinforcing the anger and distrust that outsider candidates like Trump and Sanders have been harnessing.

"Why should we trust the people who have made every wrong decision to substitute their will for America's will in this presidential election?" Trump wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column attacking the delegate system as one more thing the establishment has screwed up that he must be elected to fix.

Martin warned that the Republican Party could enter "dangerous territory" if it selects a nominee who does not at least have a plurality of votes. Trump is already laying the groundwork to argue that choosing anyone else would be illegitimate, even if the rules allow for it, and that is an easy case for the public to understand.

"The more straightforward narrative tends to be the one that people latch on to," she said.

Political junkies interested in the nuances and the rules may understand exactly how the nominating process works, but the average voter might just hear "chaos and nonsense" when they try to explain it.

Traugott predicted that any outcome at this point could leave both parties with deeply unpopular nominees and large swaths of dissatisfied voters who might not turn out to vote in November.

According to Dallek, the very public fight over delegate selection may give some voters the impression that the system is rigged, but there is not really a perfect process out there.

"I'm not sure that having Donald Trump win the nomination is going to inspire a whole lot of confidence in the political system either," he added.

Some have argued the system needs to be reformed to reflect the modern world. Trump's convention manager, Paul Manafort, staked out that position on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

"Yes, there's history and conventions," Manafort said. "But that history is ancient now. It's not a modern era presidency with the world opening up the way it has, with the social media world opening up the way it has."

The immediate challenge for the parties is that, while the current process is not entirely democratic, their rank-and-file members seem to believe that it should be. Exit polls in Wisconsin, where Trump was resoundingly defeated by Cruz in the primary, showed that a significant majority of Republican voters still believe the person with the most votes should be the nominee.

If the Republican Party wants to deprive Trump of the nomination in Cleveland, then, party leaders will need to justify to their members that the candidate with the most votes and the most delegates does not deserve to be the nominee.

"I think that it will feel to people very undemocratic if that's not what happens," Martin said. "I just can't imagine how it would feel any other way."

The grumbling over the 2016 nomination fights is reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the electoral vote after a Supreme Court ruling stopped a recount in Florida.

Similar complaints of disenfranchisement and corruption ensued, but the protests and the anger of grassroots activists resulted in very little actual change.

It is too soon to judge the lasting impact of the current turmoil over the primaries and caucuses.

"I think there's going to be a real debate about it," Dallek said, "and the parties are going to look hard at what should be changed."

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