Trump says contested conventions are undemocratic. Is he right?

Donald Trump and his supporters say the American election system is 'rigged' and unfair. Tough beans, say Republican leaders and delegates: these are the rules. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during an April 4 rally at the Milwaukee Theatre, where the half-empty room was an ominous harbinger of Trump’s fate the next day: he lost to rival Ted Cruz by 13 percentage points.

With a contested Republican National Convention potentially on the docket for July, a lot of Republicans (especially Donald Trump and his supporters) are saying that the system is undemocratic in the simplest sense: the candidate with the most support from American voters might be denied the nomination. 

But despite the confusion of a contested convention, political analysts assure voters that even a delegate free-for-all would stay true to American politics. This is what Mr. Trump (and his voters) signed up for when they decided to support the Republican party, they say. In other words, don't hate the player or even the party, Republican voters, hate the game. 

States' delegates "are the base of the party," Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told Reuters. "The delegates are not the establishment. They are the base. And I think that's a great misunderstanding." 

A contested convention has nothing to do with the GOP elite's public dislike of Trump, Republican leaders say: rules are rules. Former President Ronald Reagan, for example, was also the victim of a contested convention in 1976, although the decision took just one round of ballots, not the "brokered convention" of multiple rounds that brings backroom dealing to mind.

The delegate system is confusing – and less-than-transparent, say some - but still legal. If Trump and his voters didn't like the rules of the game, they could have rallied against the Republican party status quo from the beginning. 

"You know, it's not Donald Trump running party-free to be president – he could have decided to go an independent route," an alternate delegate told Vice News in late March. "But he decided to run as a Republican and I think that because he made that decision he should respect the wishes and the decision of the party, rather than trying to hold the party hostage with threats of riots and mobs and violence."

In a typical election, Americans might barely notice their delegates: during primary season, the Republican candidate secures at least 1,237 delegates far before the convention starts, and the convention simply rubberstamps the candidate through to the nomination. 

But when no Republican candidate wins a majority of those votes during primaries, however, the reality of America’s electoral process sets in – especially among the leading candidates' supporters. If a majority of delegates don't agree on one candidate, they will all keep casting ballots at the convention until someone hits 1,237. If two or three ballots pass without a majority, every delegate is freed from their original promise to the US voters they represent, and they can vote for whomever they want. 

"If Donald Trump gets a majority and the majority of delegates vote for him and he doesn’t become the nominee, then I think that would be a huge deal and that would be wrong," Rich Counts, one of Sen. Marco Rubio's 10 DC delegates, told Vice. "But if he doesn't get the majority of delegates, that's our process. That's what the rules have always been. And I think we should stick with them in that case."

But to avoid long-term damage, the party will need to be particularly transparent about convention rules, one unbound delegate from North Dakota told CNBC. 

Breaking the illusion that the American public has power over the nominee could cause potential voters to walk away from the party altogether, no matter what the rules are, Gary Emineth said.

"People across the country will be very frustrated," Mr. Emineth predicted, because of "all the votes that have been cast in caucuses and primaries. Don't disenfranchise those voters. Because at the end of the day, our goal is to beat Hillary Clinton or whoever their [Democratic] nominee is in November."

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