What Is A Shadow Primary? This Ominous Sounding Event Is A Common (And Crucial) Part Of The Process

Donald Trump has won more delegates than anybody else in the Republican race, but there’s quite a bit to suggest that Trump, despite his dominance at the polls, hasn’t laid the groundwork needed to win a contested convention, and is therefore losing the "shadow primary." OK, that all sounds really ominous, so what is a shadow primary? It's actually a completely common part of the presidential process, for better or for worse.

The term can have a few meanings, but at this stage in the race, it refers to an esoteric but extremely important part of the nomination process: delegate selection. To vastly oversimplify for a moment, the shadow primary is the competition between campaigns to get their own loyalists elected to delegate slots at the state level.

Media attention usually focuses on the delegate allocation in the primaries and caucuses. What’s easily forgotten, though, is that when you participate in a primary or a caucus, you don’t actually vote for your candidate of choice. Rather, you vote for delegates who are pledged to your candidate of choice, and who will vote for that candidate at the party’s national convention. It’s a convoluted process, but that’s how it works.

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But the states still have to decide which actual human beings will go to the convention and serve as delegates. This is where the shadow primary takes place.

Delegate selection is conducted differently across the country and between the two parties, and it's extraordinarily complicated in some states. In general, though, the statewide branch of each party holds a mini-convention at the state level, and individuals are selected to serve as delegates at these conventions. The means by which they’re selected varies from state to state. Sometimes they’re chosen by party officials, sometimes they’re elected by voters, and sometimes they’re appointed by candidates and their campaigns. A small number of states send unbound delegates to the national convention; they too are selected through this general process.

If Republicans have a contested convention, the identities of the delegates will be really, really important, because they’ll be allowed to vote for whichever candidate they personally prefer on the second ballot of voting and beyond. This is precisely why there’s a shadow primary. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich are scrambling to get their own supporters elected to delegate slots, so those delegates will vote for them if the convention is contested.

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In a sense, it’s tricky to assess who’s winning the shadow primary. The results are unfolding at countless state (and sometimes county) conventions, and moreover, it’s not always clear which candidate an individual delegate actually prefers. In another sense, though, it’s not tricky at all. Just about every piece of information out there suggests that Donald Trump is losing the shadow primary very, very badly. He’s reportedly failed to get his supporters elected to delegate slots at state convention after state convention. As a result, it could be nearly impossible for him to win the Republican nomination if he doesn’t win 1,237 delegates before the national convention in July.

It's an essential reminder of how difficult it is to win an election based on star power alone. Candidates also need to excel at the boring-but-crucial delegate selection process if they want to have all of their bases covered. So far, Trump seemingly hasn't.