THE BLOG
04/20/2016 03:54 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Right That the Primary System Is 'Rigged'?

Though they are running for the presidential nomination in different political parties and their stances on numerous key issues are pretty different, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have a lot in common. Among other things, both are popular with voters who feel unheard and are tired of politics as usual. And both call their political party's system of electing their nominee "rigged."

First, what does "rigged" mean, exactly?

A lot of voters are fed up with the system. (meg's my name/Flickr)

In nautical terms, rigged actually means to be in working order. But that's not what we're talking about here. In this context, rigged means to be manipulated fraudulently, to be fixed to that the winner or outcome is predetermined.

Trump and Sanders--and many of their supporters--believe that the way the Republicans and Democrats run the presidential nominating process is fixed to favor either certain kinds of candidates or specific individual candidates or both.

Who? Establishment candidates, who come from inside the political system and have worked to get the support of key political leaders. Once those leaders favor these candidates, they tilt the system in their favor.

That's the "rigged system" charge. Let's look at it a little more closely.

How the nominating system works

In some states, you can register on election day. (Barack Obama/Flickr)

In America, we have a two-party system. That means our politics are dominated by two political parties: The Republican Party and the Democratic Party. (There are others, but they are tiny and insignificant compared with these two.) The system is fixed so that our president will almost definitely come from one of these two parties. (Just ask Ross Perot or Ralph Nader.) So on that level, you could say the system is rigged.

To figure out which Republican and which Democrat will run against each other for the White House in the general election, candidates in each party run against each other in the primary. To do that, they compete for votes and delegates state by state. And the Republican and Democratic party in each state decide how to run this process.

States can hold either a primary or a caucus. 12 states (and 3 territories) have caucuses, and everyone else has primaries. In a primary, you show up to your polling place, pull a lever or push a button on a screen, vote, and leave. Caucuses have different rules state to state, but they are more like social events, and some even hold votes by a show of hands.

States can hold an open primary, a closed primary, or a semi-closed primary. Open means anyone can vote for any candidate. Closed means only registered Democrats can vote for Democratic candidates and only registered Republicans can vote for Republican candidates. (Some closed states let unaffiliated voters register on election day itself so they can vote.) Semi-closed means unaffiliated voters can choose one or the other party primary to vote in, and party members can vote only in their party's primary.

The candidate with the most raw votes wins the state. And the popular vote translates into delegates. To win your party's nomination, you have to win a certain number of delegates in each state and territory. Republicans need 1,237 delegates. Democrats need 2,383 delegates. You need to get overall votes, yes, but your campaign must understand how delegates are apportioned in each state and have a strategy to win them.

Each political party in each state gets a certain number of delegates to award. And they can award them different ways: winner-take-all, winner-take-most, proportional, or some other model. Plus, 3 Republican states hold nominating conventions in addition to their primary or caucus.

Then there are the superdelegates and unbound delegates. Only the Democrats have superdelegates--party leaders who get to cast votes however they like. And they can switch allegiance--in 2008, many superdelegates who supported Clinton switched to Obama. Republicans don't have superdelegates, but they do have unbound delegates who can vote differently than how their state voted if the party has a contested convention--more on that in a sec). Right now there's a ton of infighting in both parties over these types of delegates.

In both parties, there are also "released" delegates. These are the delegates won by candidates who ended up dropping out. This year, this is a bigger deal in the Republican race, which had more candidates overall and had some strong contenders, like Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, drop out after they'd won a good number of delegates. What happens their released delegates isn't 100% set in stone.

Each party holds a nominating convention. Both the Democratic and the Republican conventions will be in July. That's where the delegates are officially awarded and the official winner is named. Once in a while, a party has a contested convention, where the nominee isn't 100% clear before it starts, so delegates hold rounds of voting to determine the nominee. It isn't pretty.

Whew. Rigged or not, it's a complicated system. (And we haven't even mentioned the electoral college!)

Why Team Sanders says the system is rigged

Usually when Sanders talks about the "rigged" system, he's referring to the economy overall, to a widespread perception that the economy favors the rich and powerful. But he also says the political system is rigged. And when he's not saying it himself, many of his supporters, and some political observers, say it.

Here's one example of why: In the Wyoming caucus, Sanders beat Hillary Clinton decisively, by 12%. Yet she ended up with more delegates.

Many blame the Democratic National Committee, led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of rigging the system in favor of Clinton and against Sanders. On "The Daily Show," she told Trevor Noah she doesn't have that kind of power.

And on CNN, the way she explained superdelegates to Jake Tapper sure makes it sound like the system is built to keep "grassroots activists" from building insurgent candidacies:

"Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists."

Why the Democratic system may not be as 'rigged' as it looks

Bernie supporters are really active on social media, and they often repeat the idea that the election isn't going along with the "will of the people."

Some even say the polls are rigged too.

But Clinton is beating Sanders not only in the delegate count--both pledged delegates and superdelegates--but also pretty soundly in the popular vote, by 14 points, about 56% to 42%. So far, before the New York primary, Clinton has won about 9.36 million total votes, and Sanders has won about 6.97 million.

And you'd probably suspect that a "rigged system" would give Clinton--widely considered to be the "establishment" candidate--an even higher percentage of pledged delegates than popular vote. But that's not the case. Sanders has about 42% of the overall vote, but he has between 45 and 46% of pledged delegates.

So yes, it's true that so far the popular vote and the delegate count aren't aligned--but it's Clinton, not Sanders, who has fewer pledged delegates than the popular vote would suggest she should have.

BTW, Clinton is also beating Sanders with key populations that Democrats have long relied on to win the general election, like blacks and Latinos.

Meanwhile, most Sanders wins have been in states that hold caucuses, not primaries. That's significant for several reasons:

1. Many believe caucuses are undemocratic and disenfranchise certain types of voters.
2. Overall, caucus states tend to be overwhelmingly white.
3. Caucuses have relatively low turnout.
4. If those caucuses had been primaries, Sanders may not have won.

All this, despite Sanders raising and spending more money than Clinton (and from mostly independent donors, too).

Why Team Trump says the system is rigged

And not just rigged, but also "corrupt."

The other day, Trump wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about the rigged system, saying that "the elites" in politics "have been wrong" about many issues affecting Americans, so why should we
(a) elect another politician from the establishment or (b) trust the system, which favors putting another establishment politician into the White House?

"Why should we trust the people who have made every wrong decision to substitute their will for America's will in this presidential election? ... The American people can have no faith in such a system. It must be reformed."


The argument is that the Republican party itself is overruling the popular vote in the way it awards delegates.

A few states are in fact awarding delegates in ways that don't reflect the popular vote totals.

And Trump accuses Senator Ted Cruz, his main rival for the Republican nomination, of working the system.

Team Trump fears that unbound delegates and released delegates will line up against him at the Republican National Convention. And if you're a #NeverTrump Republican, that's exactly what you hope will happen.

Why the Republican system may not be as 'rigged' as it looks

Unlike Clinton, Trump's delegate total before the New York primary is disproportionately high, thanks to the high number of states where the Republican party has a "winner take most" system of awarding delegates. So when he wins in a "winner take all" or "winner take most" state, his victory is even bigger than his popular vote tally would suggest.

That's why Trump has won more delegates than his raw vote total would suggest: Trump has won 37% of the popular vote so far, but 45% of delegates.

The chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus, says the rules aren't secret, they're well known and apply to everyone, so it's hard for Trump to complain about it.

And big money isn't winning the race for Trump. He's mostly self-funded, but he hasn't invested that money in a big campaign organization or in advertising. His strategy has mostly been to dominate the news cycle.

And whether the system is 'rigged' or not ...

So both Trump and Sanders are running on rhetoric about dismantling our rigged political and economic system.

But if you're complaining about our nominating process being rigged, you may want to explain how you're going to take down systems of power if you're elected president.

And both Trump and Sanders style themselves as outsider candidates--Sanders himself is in the Senate as an independent, not as a Democrat--but are running for major party nominations, not as third-party candidates. Maybe after 2016 that will start to finally change.

Though it'll be an uphill battle.

This article was written by Holly Epstein Ojalvo and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.