woody zimmermann 120I’m not the first commentator to note that although presidential campaign season is usually pretty crazy, this one is crazier than most – maybe the craziest ever. On one side, a former Secretary of State (and former First Lady) – who could be indicted for exposing state secrets to possible compromise by ignoring fundamental security rules – is trying to fight off a serious challenge from a septuagenarian socialist who holds up Cuba as his ideal society and is promising free “everything” to starry-eyed young voters. (I’m not making this up!) Madame Secretary leads her wild-haired opponent by a comfortable margin of delegates, but she has lost six straight primaries to him. A majority of voters from her own party give her failing grades in the “honest and trustworthy” department. Worse yet, she lacks the good-old-boy aw-shucks manner, roguish charm and Baptist-evangelist eloquence of her big, loveable hubby, “Bubba” (a.k.a. Bill). Voters do not like her.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, a flamboyant zillionaire businessman and TV personality has driven thirteen other candidates out of the race with an improbable combination of bombastic invective, insult, personal attack, distraction, and radical pronouncements – particularly on illegal immigration. Politically incorrect gaffes that would sink most candidates only seem to energize his enthusiastic support-base. He is the Teflon Candidate supremo. Yet considerable numbers in his own party say they will not support him in a general election. He is opposed by the least-liked member of the United States Senate, plus a state governor who has won only his own state’s primary but still believes he could be the choice of a brokered convention. The unloved Senator has won several state primaries, but still trails the improbable leader by a sizable margin of delegates.

A script for a miniseries with a plot this improbable would be laughed out of the cigar bar where TV and movie moguls hang out. “Where’s the conflict” is usually the operative question around Beverly Hills swimming pools, but there are limits to everything. War within both parties during the same election year? Really? A drama has to be believable to work. This one could never pass that test.

But the political drama we’re in is neither a movie nor even “reality TV.” It’s the cold reality that hits you in the face on a dreary winter Monday morning after you’ve spent a week with your honey in Aruba. This is deadly serious stuff for both parties, and leaders are making plans to deal with eventualities in various ways.

Democrats have, in fact, already planned for a contested primary-election by rigging their system. In addition to delegates that a candidate can win by his share of the vote in a particular state’s primary, some “super-delegates” are set aside in each state. The latter are not “won” by vote. Instead, they are party bigwigs who have the power to support a particular candidate according to their own judgment. The party’s ruling elites schmooze with the super-delegates to persuade them to choose the candidate who seems to have the best chance to win the presidency. The primaries indicate what voters are thinking. If support is heavy for one candidate, the “supes” usually add their support to push him/her over the top. But if the primary is close, or if a candidate considered “unsuitable” by the party bosses is getting too close to winning, the super-delegates make sure that the right guy (or gal) prevails. Their judgment often makes the difference.

The latter dynamic is currently operative in the Democratic Party. At this writing, Mrs. Clinton’s delegate count is 1,790, while Senator Sanders’ count is only 1,113. She is leading by 677 delegates – a margin of 23% – and she needs just 593 more to ice the nomination. This looks impressive, but the former Sec-State’s total includes 486 super-delegates, while the Senator has only 38. This means that her lead in delegates won by election or caucus is 229 out of 2,324 delegates, a margin of only 9.6% – far below her 23% margin in total delegates. Mrs. Clinton has support from 93% of all super-delegates so far – a fact now being noticed by the rambunctious crowds thronging Senator Sanders’ rallies. Even a child can see that the fix is in.

Democrat pooh-bahs have obviously decided that Mrs. Clinton should be their nominee, but their voters might think otherwise. Large numbers of them do not trust Mrs. Clinton, and they are making this known by their support of Bernie (“The Commie”) Sanders. If he draws even with Mrs. Clinton in delegates-won, but gets knocked out by her super-delegates, the veil hiding these party-machinations will be rent in twain and there could be hell to pay – not unlike the legendary uproar at their 1968 convention in Chicago, when local cops knocked the heads of rioting “stoners” in living color on Network TV. As Abe Lincoln – today an honorary Democrat – once said, “you can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

Republicans have no super-delegate system in place – none, at least, under that name. Some states reserve a few delegates who can make their own choices, but most delegates are apportioned to the various candidates by election or caucus. Right now, 1602 delegates have been won, as shown in the table below.

TOTAL Trump Cruz Rubio Kasich
1602 743 545 171 143
  46.4% 34.0% 10.7% 8.9%

To gain the GOP nomination, a candidate must have captured 1237 delegates of the 2472 possible. Thus, 870 still remain undecided in the 16 states waiting to vote. Mr. Trump has 46.4% of the delegates chosen so far, while Senator Cruz has 34%. Senator Rubio and Governor Kasich have a combined total of 19.6%. With big wins in New York (95) and California (172), Mr. Trump could go over the top and sweep into the convention with more than the 1237 delegates needed.

On the other hand, he might not. Senator Cruz seems to be coming up fast, so he could keep Mr. Trump from gaining 1237. If this happens, no one would win the nomination on the convention’s first ballot, thereby releasing all committed delegates to cast their votes differently in subsequent ballots. A so-called “brokered” convention, thus produced, might not choose the candidate who came to the convention with the most committed delegates.

This possibility is keeping Republican leaders awake at night. Essentially, they face two significant problems. First, they want to ensure that their nominee can win in November. Many do not believe Mr. Trump can, so they are doing everything possible to get someone else to represent the party. Unfortunately, many also do not believe Senator Cruz can win – thus ruling out both of their leading candidates. Gov. Kasich hopes he can be the “electable” alternative, but that seems dubious. He has won only the primary in his own state of Ohio. Other wild notions of drafting House Speaker Ryan – who has not even run, and says he doesn’t want to – seem far-fetched and desperate. The idea that GOP voters would countenance rejection of candidates who have won so much combined support in the primaries, in favor of someone who hasn’t even run, is absurd. It simply can’t work.

But the GOP’s second problem is holding the party together – a serious issue in this tumultuous environment. Numbers of Republicans do not want Mr. Trump to be the nominee, even if he can win in the fall. Some have declared that they will never support him in the general election. And a few – notably including previous GOP nominee Mitt Romney and now even former First Lady Laura Bush – have hinted that they might vote for Hillary Clinton if Mr. Trump wins the GOP nomination. Surveys show that the “never Trump” faction in the party is alarmingly large. Some long-time committed Republicans have told me they won’t vote at all if Mr. Trump is the nominee. Very few say they will actually consider voting for Mrs. Clinton.

This is where the normal craziness of an unusually crazy primary season descends into outright insanity. At the very least, it demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding of the arithmetic of elections – hence, the title of this article. Most Republican voters can see, of course, that voting Democrat is certain to help elect Mrs. Clinton or Senator Sanders. Each Republican who does so becomes one more vote for Hillary (or Bernie) and one less for Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz. The math is pretty easy to understand, so not too many Republicans are likely to go that far – unless they are really Dems just masquerading as Republicans.

The greater danger for Republicans is the faction of voters who are too dense to see that staying home (or voting for Bugs Bunny) on election-day does not amount to a principled protest. It will simply guarantee a Democrat in the White House for four (or eight) more dreary years. The poorly-understood math goes like this:

Say there are 5 Democrat voters, and 6 Republicans. The Republicans should carry the election, but two of them decide not to vote because they don’t like their Party’s candidate. The final tally is 5 to 4, giving Democrats the win. This is neither rocket science nor the Calculus of Variations, yet millions of Republicans can’t grasp the simple fact that they will hand victory to the other side if they don’t vote.

I doubt that many of them are reading these words, so I urge my readers to spread the message to friends and acquaintances who don’t get it. Do they really want an untrustworthy socialist or an outright commie in the White House? No candidate will be perfect, and certainly Mr. Trump wouldn’t be my first choice. But any of the Republicans would be far more suitable than a president from the other side. The stakes are unimaginably high, and we can’t afford to fool around with this. Time to lay down the pitchfork, sober up, and put on the thinking cap.