Watching it unfold from his home state of New York, Donald Trump was aghast when Ted Cruz picked up all of Colorado’s 34 delegates at the state’s Republican convention last weekend. As his grip on a first-ballot nomination slipped away, Trump lashed out: “The system, folks, is rigged. It’s a rigged, disgusting, dirty system.” On the other side, Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, vowed to contest Hillary Clinton’s nomination at this summer’s Democratic convention — presumably because the system of superdelegates, among whom Clinton leads 469 to 31, is also rigged. Even pundits agree: “Why does the Democratic Party even have voting booths?” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough railed this past week, after watching Sanders win Wyoming’s caucuses only to receive fewer of that state’s delegates (including superdelegates) than Clinton did.
It’s true that both parties’ nominating systems are covered in warts. State caucuses tend to be held at night in winter, require at least an hour of voters’ time and result in low-turnout elections dominated by hard-core activists. Individual states on the Republican side have autonomy to apportion delegates as they see fit (take Colorado, where Cruz won all 34 delegates through a seemingly undemocratic statewide GOP convention), while Democrats have a convoluted allocation process, leading to outcomes like the one in Wyoming, where Clinton lost the caucuses by nearly 12 percentage points yet took the same number of pledged delegates as Sanders. Iowa and New Hampshire vote months before Texas, New York and California do, giving two lily-white states disproportionate power to winnow the nominating field. And theoretically, unpledged delegates in both parties could tip the scales in favor of a candidate who lost the popular primary vote, enabling elites to thwart the electorate’s will.