(Bloomberg) — Republicans seeking to keep Donald Trump from becoming their party’s nominee will have to overcome rules even more favorable to the former president than the ones that helped him clinch the 2016 nomination.
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In 2024, more states will award delegates through winner-take-all primaries — a system that helped Trump when opponents divided the vote, allowing him to be awarded all or most of the delegates with less than majority support.
Once in office, Trump used his influence to stack state parties with loyalists who increased the number of winner-take-all states from seven in 2016 to 17 in 2020.
The result is a system that could give Trump a head start on the nomination before the first contest is even held — providing a significant impediment to potential challengers like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.
DeSantis hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he appeared over the weekend in Iowa — the first of 56 separate contests that will award delegates from states, territories and the District of Columbia over the first half of 2024.
“Trump is in a much better position in 2024 than he was in 2016,” said Edward Brookover, who was his delegate director seven years ago. “Right now you have to say the process side still favors him, as well as the polling.”
Trump went to the party’s 2016 convention in Cleveland with 63% of the delegates despite winning less than 45% of the votes cast during the Republican primaries, according to Associated Press tallies.
There’s still time for rival campaigns to lobby state parties for changes to their 2024 delegate selection plans, which must be submitted to the Republican National Committee by Oct. 1.
The all-or-nothing primaries helped Trump divide and conquer the Republican field in 2016. In South Carolina, for example, he received less than 33% of the vote. But his opposition was divided five ways, allowing him to win all 50 of the state’s delegates with a plurality.
Those same dynamics could help him next year. With the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, already in the race and one of its senators, Tim Scott, soon to join her, the vote could again be split, handing Trump a complete victory — and depriving both of them a home-field advantage.
Circling the Wagons
When Trump controlled the party infrastructure in 2020, Republicans worked to convert states from proportional systems — where candidates were awarded delegates in proportion to the vote they received — or hybrid ones to winner take all.
Party leaders wanted to avoid a primary challenger in 2020 who could drag out the nomination and disrupt the convention, according to Elaine Kamarck, who studies presidential nominations for the Brookings Institution. It worked: Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld won just one delegate in Iowa.
Both parties adopt this circle-the-wagons strategy when they have an incumbent president, said Kamarck, a Democrat who serves on that party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. She voted in January to move South Carolina into the early primary window at the behest of President Joe Biden.
“When there’s an incumbent president you don’t go around doing what you want to do. He’s the head of the party, so you listen to him,” she said.
In many ways, Trump remains the de facto head of the GOP, and the 2020 rules favoring him are now the default.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas won several early states in 2016 before winner-take-all rules took effect in Super Tuesday primaries that March 15. Under party rules, winner-take-all contests can’t be held until then.
Cruz lost all six races that day. He won four states over the next month, but by then Trump’s lead was insurmountable.
Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is expected to play a significant role in delegate operations for DeSantis, who has not yet announced his candidacy. Roe is now senior adviser to Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super political action committee, where a spokeswoman said it was “ridiculously early” to discuss delegate strategy.
Some states Cruz won have changed their rules to be more favorable to Trump, especially since winner-take-all or winner-take-most primaries benefit better-known candidates.
“By being winner-take-all we garner more attention than by splitting the vote,” said Mike Brown, chairman of the Republican Party in Kansas, where Cruz won 24 of 40 delegates in 2016. “We’ve got to jump up and down higher and louder than our fellow big states to be heard and to be seen.”
He acknowledged that Trump did better in winner-take-all primaries in 2016, but that’s no guarantee he’ll win Kansas in 2024. “The political landscape is different in 2024,” he said. “They are playing a different chess game.”
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