Donald Trump has demonstrated time and time again that he’s not a big fan of democracy. He has no problem trying to restrict voting, slinging baseless accusations, and launching a court case (or hundred) if he thinks it will give him an edge. When it comes to the 2024 Republican nomination, he also has his people in charge of national and state party organizations, and he means to use them.
As Laura Clawson reported on Monday, polls show that Trump has a big edge over all likely Republican opponents in the primaries that will start shortly after the current proposed date for his trial for multiple violations of the Espionage Act. But Trump doesn’t want to take any chance that a little thing like multiple felony convictions might make Republican voters think twice. That’s why his campaign team is already out there, lobbying state after state, for changes that will make it easier for Trump to lock down the primary vote and ensure that he faces no real challenge before the general election.
And their primary means of doing this is exactly the way that Republicans manage to remain competitive in political races at all levels.
Over the last few months, Trump has actually increased his edge over his biggest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In April, Trump outpolled DeSantis 46% to 31%. In June that was 51% to 22%.
The convenient narrative for Trump and right-wing media is that being indicted only made him more popular with Republican voters. The more truthful narrative is that the gap between Trump and DeSantis grew as voters got more of a chance to look at DeSantis. When Republican insiders were looking for someone who had Trump’s policies but wasn’t Trump, they forgot to insist that the someone also have a personality more engaging than a banana slug.
But for Trump, it doesn’t matter why he has a significant edge. It only matters that he has an edge. That’s because the three-pronged approach Trump’s team is taking to changing the primary rules is meant to see that the candidate who is ahead when primaries begin remains ahead throughout the race. No pesky underdogs. No horses of a non-white persuasion.
Winner take all
During the 2020 primaries this was the biggest push made by the Trump team, and it performs the same function as the Electoral College in the general election: replacing proportional representation with a system where any win means getting all the delegates. In 2016, such systems meant that when the anyone-but-Trump vote was divided across multiple candidates in early states, all Trump had to do was edge the leader. It didn’t matter if he only held a tiny plurality of votes, he got the same delegates as if he had run unopposed.
In 2016, Trump got his real vault to the top when he collected just 32% of the vote in South Carolina, but that turned out to be enough to lock down all 50 of the state’s delegates. Trump managed just 34% of the primary vote on Super Tuesday. Just 37% in the next dozen primaries held through mid-March. At that point, Trump had just over 100 delegates more than Ted Cruz, and almost all of that edge came in states like South Carolina or Arkansas where Trump pocketed all the delegates after a marginal win.
To make sure there was no chance that anyone would muck up Trump’s victory march in 2020, his team went out and lobbied hard for more of those sweet, winner-take-all primaries. And they got them. Even though no serious competition emerged (does anyone now remember the thrilling campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld?), 60% of the delegates handed out that year were winner take all.
Since most states have primary rules that are reset with every cycle, Trump’s team is back out there again this year, pushing for those states who were all-in for 2020 to remain that way in 2024. That way, all Trump has to do is hold his most dedicated core and he’s still likely to edge out the collection of competing candidates.
Winner takes almost all
There were states in 2020 that resisted moving to a winner take all position, possibly because they had some vague, unformed concerns about proportional representation. More likely because it was just different than what they had done in the past.
For those states that don’t want to give Trump all the delegates for a 0.1% biggest win ever, his team is offering an alternative: minimum candidate thresholds. The thresholds are meant to see that delegates don’t get spread out to a group of candidates, one of whom might sprout wings following a good debate performance or some fresh set of Trump indictments.
Looking at New Hampshire in 2016, Trump got 35% of the vote and collected 11 delegates. But four other candidates had between 11% and 16% of the vote, walking off with a combined 12 delegates. For Trump, setting a lower limit of something like 20% would have meant that all those candidates were redistributed—to him.
There is a risk in this strategy. Should some candidate like DeSantis manage to pop above the line, they would also collect more delegates. However, the formula would boost the top vote-getter by more, so Trump is willing to take that chance.
Yell at them ‘til they go home
Anyone who has ever attended a caucus probably has a caucus story. They can be fun if the location has the right energy, the self-appointed candidate representatives aren’t too obnoxious, and no one is deliberately trying to make an already difficult and slow process even more difficult and slow. But even when they are at their best, caucuses are time-consuming, very public, and demand a lot more out of voters than a primary.
Now imagine being in a caucus where one of the candidates is Donald Trump.
For years, Democrats have been trying to reduce the number of caucus states in order to boost voter involvement and create a system friendly to all Democratic voters. So it may not be surprising that Trump’s campaign team is very, very pro-caucus.
They love the way that caucus systems favor the loudest and most disruptive. They like the way the demands of a caucus winnow away the casual voter and reduce the franchise to just those most willing to slug it out for hours. It was in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 where Trump first managed to shrug off the perception that he was a joke candidate when his supporters screamed and shouted their way into a close second, mostly based on Trump victories in a string of rural counties.
At the next caucuses in Nevada, Trump greatly outperformed entrance polls and scored a wide victory. That’s why the Republican Party is suing the state of Nevada to keep a caucus system in place for 2024.
Michigan is also being pressured to break with the state’s official primary date, which was moved up by the Democratic legislature, and instead hold a caucus at a later date. Officially, this is because the new date violates Republican rules … by one day. The Republican Party could easily make an exception, but instead they want that later caucus. Perhaps because Michigan is one of the few states where the last time anyone polled, DeSantis was ahead of Trump.
In all of these efforts, what Trump’s election team is trying to do is make sure that the word “momentum” never appears in the 2024 Republican primaries. They know Trump is going in with a committed third of the party, plenty of money, and universal name recognition. They want to make it impossible for anyone else to pick up much steam, especially in that early part of the primaries when ego still drives a lot of non-Trump candidates to remain in the race. In 2016, all but three candidates withdrew following the burst of primaries in mid-March. Trump had a 102-delegate lead at that point, but he was catchable. It was just hard for anyone to really fall in love with either Ted Cruiz or Marco Rubio, or for either of them to drop out in support of the other.
This time around, anyone who has the top percentage of votes in those first three weeks of primaries is going to walk away with a huge lead and more than half the delegates they need to clinch the nomination, making everything much more difficult for anyone who is not Trump.
But don’t worry. If all this doesn’t work, Trump is sure to sue.