The Charleston Gazette-Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Donald Trump could overwhelmingly win the majority vote in the West Virginia Republican primary on May 10, and only walk away with three delegates pledged to vote for him at the Republican National Convention in July.
That’s an extreme scenario, but West Virginia has exactly the kind of wonky primary process that has Trump supporters up in arms across the country — one that lets voters decide who gets to represent them at the Republican convention, as long as there aren’t too many delegates from any West Virginia county.
Not only do Republican voters have to mark the presidential candidate of their choice in the May primary, they also have to vote for delegates to the Republican National Convention to give their candidate a winning vote. Out of the 34 delegates that West Virginia is allocated for the convention, 31 of them are elected directly from the ballot. Three are state party leaders.
Real estate magnate Trump can win a maximum of 31 that are pledged to vote for him on the first ballot. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz can win a maximum of 30 and Ohio Gov. John Kasich can win a maximum of just 14.
Trump is still shy of the 1,237 delegates he needs to wrap up the nomination on the first ballot at the convention and needs as many pledged delegates as he can get. Trump is a heavy favorite in West Virginia, but the state’s difficult rules, some of which the state party leaders are still learning, could stand in his way.
“It’s a complicated system,” said Jared Page, a 19-year-old University of Charleston student who’s running as a delegate committed to Trump. “Some of the people who are running for delegate might not know all the rules.”
A complicated system
In December, Republican presidential campaigns began attempting to get the people with the most recognizable names in the state to run for delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Those delegates will become the people who represent West Virginia’s vote for president.
“Different campaigns try different things,” said Conrad Lucas, chairman of West Virginia’s Republican Party. “The key is recruitment, but also understanding West Virginia’s rules.”
As the election season neared, the Ted Cruz campaign emailed and called politicians, teachers and pastors — anyone who would be known in a community — in attempts to “fill the slate,” according to U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, the chairman of the Cruz campaign in West Virginia.
To Mooney, filling the slate meant having more than the number of people who can be elected delegate, so that Cruz would have a chance to sweep the state.
It worked — the Cruz campaign secured more delegates than any other campaign in West Virginia.
But they still didn’t fully understand West Virginia’s rules — specifically, the restrictions on how many delegates can come from where.
Let’s slow this down. West Virginia has 34 delegates to the convention.
n Three of those delegates are already set: Lucas, and West Virginia’s two RNC representatives, Melody Potter and Kris Warner. Based on current convention rules, they have to vote for the winner of West Virginia’s popular vote at the national convention.
n In the May primary, nine delegates will be selected as “congressional” delegates, so named because three will come from each congressional district in the state.
n Also in the May primary, Republican voters will pick 22 “at-large” delegates from around the state, seven from each congressional district, as well as the at-large delegate who receives the most votes overall. There are 220 people running for those 22 slots, the most ever on the Republican ballot in West Virginia.
But there’s a catch with the at-large delegates: At most, only two of them can be elected from each county.
Last August, the West Virginia Republican State Executive Committee voted — by a 2-1 margin, Lucas said — to put that geographic restriction on at-large delegates. The idea was to make sure that smaller counties were fairly represented among the delegates going to the national convention.
The only exception to the two-delegate rule is the at-large delegate who gets the most votes. County restrictions don’t apply to that delegate, so it’s possible that one county might end up with three at-large delegates.
Even so, with the new rule, not a single Republican presidential candidate has enough delegates to claim every West Virginia spot at the national convention in Cleveland. The one who came the closest is Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who dropped out of the campaign in February.
Kanawha County accounts for a quarter of the 220 people who are running for at-large delegate, but a maximum of three will get to go to Cleveland.
When prospective Republican delegates were pledging allegiance to a candidate in January, there were many more to choose from than there are now.
Former Kanawha County legislator Suzette Raines, on the ballot as an at-large delegate candidate, decided early to vote for Floridan Sen. Marco Rubio. He was easily her first choice.
Then he dropped out.
Out of the 348 people who are running for delegate, only 128 — 37 percent — are committed to Cruz, Trump or Kasich, the three candidates still in the race.
Lucas has said that for the first ballot at the national convention, the state Republican Party will release West Virginia delegates who are pledged to candidates who aren’t in the race anymore. That would free those delegates to vote on the first ballot for Kasich, Cruz or Trump — assuming they’re still in the race.
That’s good news for Raines, who was left without a candidate when Rubio left the race, but wondered if she would have to vote for him anyway at the convention.
After watching the campaign progress, and as Trump maintained his delegate lead, she decided to support him.
“I wish that he were more respectful,” Raines said. “I don’t really like his rhetoric, but I think I can disregard that for electing the best leader for our country.”
If no candidate has the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot at the convention, Lucas said, all the West Virginia delegates would be released for subsequent ballots, meaning they could vote for whomever they want.
That’s good news for Cruz, whose campaign has been enormously successful in picking up uncommitted delegates in states like Louisiana and Colorado.
Mooney said that the Cruz campaign is going to wait to see which delegates get elected before they try to win over uncommitted delegates.
“First you have to have your election,” Mooney said. “The assumption is that people will follow and make good on their word and vote for the people they were elected to vote for.”
Most campaigns and candidates didn’t take into account the two-delegates-per-county rule, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t strategizing.
Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, was contacted by three different campaigns to run for delegate to the Republican National Convention before he settled on Trump.
Other prospective delegates weren’t contacted at all. Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, who has gone to every national convention except one since 1984, said that she hasn’t received any kind of contact from any of the major campaigns, even though she was uncommitted through February.
Boley, who eventually decided to support Trump, has what may be a significant advantage. She’s one of the first Trump at-large delegates on the ballot, because it’s in alphabetical order.
“When you look at basically the people who have won, you look at low names, A, B or C,” said longtime Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley. He’s never been elected delegate as a delegate to the national convention, he believes, because his name begins with an O.
Voters get to choose three congressional delegates and 22 at-large delegates. So, while the names matter, candidates generally paid more attention to who would recognize them.
Charleston resident Kit Forbes-Wellford, an at-large delegate candidate, remains uncommitted on the ballot. Forbes-Wellford, who worked for former Gov. Arch Moore’s economic development team, decided to include her maiden name and the name of her husband, developer John Wellford, because she thought it might increase name recognition.
Some candidates choose between being a congressional delegate or at-large delegate by where they believe more people will recognize them, Walters said.
Congressional delegates can only be voted on by people from their own district, so while there’s less competition, most of the people who run are well known in the district.
At-large delegates can be voted on by the entire state — so someone like Mooney, a congressman, has a good chance of having his name recognized in every region.
Mostly, the early strategy came down to getting as many candidates running for delegate as possible.
Both Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had mass filing days where all their candidates applied to get on the ballot.
“The very first task was to fill the slate,” Mooney said.
West Virginia’s Republican primary method is called direct delegate election and is one of the country’s oldest forms of a primary election, dating back to when Florida adopted the first primary in 1904.
Other states, like Alabama, directly elect delegates on the ballot, but they’re allocated based on the majority vote from the state. Pennsylvania directly elects their at-large delegates, but they’re all considered uncommitted and go into the convention as free agents.
Most states skip direct election altogether and host state conventions to choose the delegates for the state. (That’s how Democrats in West Virginia do it. Most of the delegates to their national convention are allocated proportionately, based on the popular vote. A few superdelegates — all high-ranking political officials — can vote at the national convention for whomever they want.)
When it comes to Republicans, West Virginia is the only one that allocates the vast majority of its delegates based on voters’ individual preference for those delegates.
“In the majority of states, voters do not have that direct say,” said Josh Putnam, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of Georgia.
The direct say depends on an informed electorate. In years past, delegates have pretty much matched up to the majority vote in the state, but no Republican primary has been this tight in May since the 1970s.
West Virginia hasn’t always used a direct process. In 2008, to get more national media attention, state Republicans held a convention-style caucus to elect at-large delegates on Super Tuesday. They timed it so that the results would be the first to come out, before some states even went to the polls.
But during those caucuses, there was so much political maneuvering that many Republicans were turned off by the event, and vowed not to host a state caucus again.
There is a middle ground. Most states that still use the direct election process (which accounts for 16 percent of the total delegates to the convention, according to FiveThirtyEight.com) allocate those delegates based on the popular vote. That way, voters are picking the people who represent them, but the majority vote still matters.
“Personally, I wish that the popular vote played a larger role,” Lucas said. “And I think because West Virginia matters this year, this highlights some of the issues that we can discuss as a party.”
Even with the current system, voters still have a direct say in who represents them at the convention rather than relying on people who are chosen in what Lucas calls backroom political dealings. He sees that as a point of pride.
“I’m very proud of how the process itself is,” Lucas said. “The delegates are on the ballot.”
Reach Daniel Desrochers at [email protected], 304-348-4886 or follow @drdesrochers on Twitter.