Donald Trump, or whoever is writing his op-eds these days, has become more sophisticated over the course of his campaign. The grand but questionably true statements aren’t as common as they used to be, and the smaller distortions are now spewed out with enough rhetorical chaff around them to escape many people’s notice.
Trump’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal is a prime example. The article, which appears under his byline but doesn’t resemble any of his other writings or speeches, accuses the Colorado Republican Party of holding “an ‘election’ without voters. Delegates were chosen on behalf of a presidential nominee, yet the people of Colorado were not able to cast their ballots to say which nominee they preferred. A planned vote had been canceled. And one million Republicans in Colorado were sidelined.”
He added, “Responsible leaders should be shocked by the idea that party officials can simply cancel elections in America if they don’t like what the voters may decide.”
The plain implication is that Colorado GOP leaders feared Trump would win in their state and hastily shut down the democratic process there in favor of a more opaque system that would disfavor Trump.
To be plain: That’s nonsense.
Here’s what actually happened. In August of last year, the leadership of the Republican Party of Colorado decided to change the way state’s delegates to the Republican nominating convention were selected. Rather than having a statewide presidential preference vote, they decided on a complex system of caucuses and conventions to elect delegates who would not necessarily have to commit themselves to a particular candidate.
At the time, the state GOP leadership made it plain that the move was to avoid sending Colorado delegates to the convention in Cleveland bound to vote for a candidate who -- like the majority of the original Republican field -- had dropped out of the race.
Steve House, the state committee chair, explained to a local television station on August 24, “Eliminating the straw poll means the delegates we send to the national convention in Cleveland will be free to choose the candidate they feel can best put America back on a path to prosperity and security. No one wants to see their vote cast for an empty chair, especially not on a stage as big as the national convention’s."
It worked like this: On March 1, Colorado Republican voters caucused in their local precincts to choose (also known as “voting for”) delegates to country-level conventions that were held over the next month. The county conventions then chose delegates to send to the Congressional district level conventions and the state convention.
Each of the seven Congressional district conventions chose three delegates to the national convention. The candidates for delegate did not have to promise to support a particular presidential candidate, but if they did, they were bound to that candidate on the first ballot.
Then, on April 9, the same delegates who attended the Congressional District level conventions gathered for the state convention and chose 13 more delegates.
Was the system in Colorado more complex that in many other states? Absolutely. Was it the most efficient way to select delegates to the nominating convention? Probably not.
But was it a plot conceived to deprive Donald Trump of delegates in Colorado? Only if the Colorado GOP has the ability to see into the future. The reason that the state changed its rules in August of last year was that it was required to, in order to comply with new RNC rules about delegate selection. Compliance with the new rules could take many forms, like the system in South Carolina, for instance, where Trump won less than one-third of the popular vote but received 100 percent of the delegates -- a form of disenfranchisement that he doesn’t appear too concerned about. Colorado’s change was announced in August and approved by the RNC in late September.
In August, Trump was still seen as a novelty candidate, running around the country picking fights with Macy’s and calling Mexicans rapists. Identifying the need for a plan to stymie Trump in Colorado at that point would have required the same sort of foresight needed to plant birth announcements in Hawaiian newspapers in 1961 against the possibility that your Kenyan-born son might want to run for president in 2008.
That said, Trump will continue to claim that he was robbed by the establishment in Colorado and elsewhere, and it will probably work with a large segment of his followers for two reasons.
First, determining the truth of how Colorado’s rule change took place requires the investment of more time than the average person is willing to spend reading about obscure Republican National Committee rulings and state-level deliberations.
Second, and more importantly, is that it feeds into a narrative that feels true.
Trump’s chief challenger, Ted Cruz, is exploiting the system in multiple states to his advantage. He out-hustled Trump in Colorado, succeeding in getting his supporters into all of the 34 at-large and Congressional district delegates. In other states, his campaign has placed delegates loyal to him in seats won by Trump. They will be required to vote for Trump on the first and perhaps second ballots in Cleveland, but will be able to switch their allegiance to Cruz afterward.
Cruz is not cheating. He is playing by the GOP’s arcane and confusing rules. But to Trump and his followers, losing because an opponent is exploiting a complex system they don’t fully understand feels like being swindled by that system.
Trump has got as far as he has by throwing gasoline on the smoldering anger of his supporters and then assiduously fanning the flames. The idea that Trump, and by extension his supporters, are being cheated by a corrupt system is just one more perceived outrage that’s tailor made for The Donald to exploit.