Current Issue

Volume 93, Number 4

October 2018

Was the Process to Blame? Why Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Won Their Parties’ Presidential Nominations

William G. Mayer

Given the widespread dissatisfaction with both major-party nominees in 2016, it is natural to ask if the American presidential nomination process is to blame for producing two such candidates as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But when the dynamics of these two nomination races are examined, there is little evidence that the outcomes would have been affected by any plausible changes in the process. Hillary Clinton did gain an advantage from the Democratic rule that awards automatic delegate status to elected and party officials, but she also won a clear majority of the votes cast by ordinary voters in presidential primaries and of the delegates selected through primaries and caucuses. And though there is evidence that the leadership of the Democratic National Committee favored her nomination and wanted to aid her candidacy, there is little that the committee actually did—or could do—to make such an outcome more likely. On the Republican side, Donald Trump did not win because the Republican process was, in effect, taken over by independents. Trump won a solid plurality of the votes cast by primary voters who identified as Republicans. A different set of delegate allocation rules and a large contingent of Republican superdelegates might have slowed Trump’s road to the nomination, but, given his dominance of the primaries, probably would not have changed the final result. The only rules changes that might have aided both Clinton’s and Trump’s opponents were if more states had used a caucus-convention system instead of a primary to select their national convention delegates. Both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz fared substantially better in caucuses than in primaries. But given ample evidence that caucuses have a significantly smaller and less representative turnout than primaries, it is unlikely that either party—or their rank-and-file members—would have endorsed a substantially greater use of caucuses.