The March 15 winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio have been billed as make-or-break for the Republican candidates still holding out hope that they can topple Donald Trump. But those contests are also make-or-break for Trump, and for the Republican Party: They will determine whether there’s chaos or a coronation at the Cleveland convention.
If Trump can win both states, he’s on a glide path to earning a majority of delegates ahead of the July 18 convention. The only way to dethrone him at that point would be for the GOP to throw out its existing convention rules. A move that dramatic won’t happen. It would divide and destroy a party that has always prided itself on adhering to rules.
But if Trump doesn’t win both states, the GOP is likely to find itself in Cleveland with no candidate above the 1,237-delegate majority needed to claim the nomination. If that happens, the Republican Party’s own rules lock in a quagmire in Cleveland—and likely a multi-ballot, no-holds-barred convention.
The craziness will unfold in stages, with more delegates increasingly freeing up to vote for whomever they like as the process advances. All that puts a huge premium on an obscure and intricate competition happening right now in each state—the selection of the actual delegates. Any campaign not waging a major, if under-the-national-radar, effort to get its supporters elected as delegates will come up short in Cleveland.
Here’s how just such a chaotic convention could happen.
Round 1: Chasing the Unbound
Trump can put all the contested convention talk to rest by securing a majority of delegates before July, and winning Ohio and Florida would go a long way to achieving that. If he doesn’t win both, the talk will continue.
While Trump is the frontrunner, he has won only about 44 percent of the delegates awarded in states that have voted so far. By comparison, Mitt Romney had won 56 percent of the delegates at this point in the 2012 primary; he became the presumptive GOP nominee in mid-April and secured a majority of delegates in late May. If Trump maintains his current rate of 44 percent, he will go into Cleveland with just 1,088 of the 2,472 total delegates—149 short of the 1,237 needed for a majority.
Trump suggested in Thursday night’s debate that the leading candidate, even one shy of a majority, should automatically receive the nomination. But to allow a candidate to be declared the nominee with only a plurality of delegates would require the unprecedented amendment of the existing rules, a feat of rules wizardry as transformative as denying a candidate with a majority the nomination.
Rather than a wholesale rewriting of the rules, the more likely scenario is that if Trump goes into the convention without a majority, he will need to convince enough of the few unbound delegates there to support him. (The unbound delegates consists of those from five states that decided not to hold statewide votes, as well as 54 from Pennsylvania who were directly elected without declaring a presidential preference.) That approach is consistent with the existing rules—but it won’t be easy. In fact, it could lead to convention mayhem.
President Gerald Ford, who went into the 1976 convention without a majority, had to do this to defeat Ronald Reagan. But Trump would be in a tougher spot: In the first presidential roll call vote at the convention, a rule in effect for the first time in 2016 automatically binds more than 90 percent of delegates to specific candidates based on those delegates’ statewide votes. That leaves only a very small pool of delegates that Trump could win over in order to reach a majority on the first ballot: 166 delegates who are already unbound, plus an unknown number whose state laws will unbind them if their candidate drops out by the time of the convention. (There are currently 12 of these delegates, but, importantly, that number will increase if one of the current candidates drops out. For example, should Marco Rubio drop out without winning any additional delegates, 152 delegates would be added to the unbound pool, nearly doubling the number available to Trump’s powers of persuasion to gain a first-ballot majority.)
As things stand now, however, Trump would need to win over a dauntingly high portion of the 166 unbound delegates—nearly 90 percent—in order to get the 149 delegates he would need to reach an overall majority. And many of these unbound delegates are likely to be supporters of candidates Trump has defeated, and could have a less-than-kind view of him.
Round 2: The Delegates Shake Loose
If Trump does not get a majority of delegates on the first ballot, the rules make his hunt for a majority even more difficult on the second ballot. At that point, nearly three-quarters of the delegates—more than 1,800 of the 2,472—become instantly unbound. They are free agents who can vote for any nominated candidate, with no obligation to Trump even if he won their particular state. The national convention has no authority to amend these binding rules because they are set by each state, and the deadline for states to change their rules has passed.
On the third and subsequent ballots, things would get really unpredictable. Not only would even more delegates become unbound; the current rules also do not require the candidate with the smallest number of votes to drop out, meaning the deadlock can last for endless ballots until a remaining candidate bends.
At that point, a convention can have a mind of its own. The delegations will be a hotbed of rumors, deals and rumored deals. The absolute nightmare scenario is a convention so fractured with so many false rumors spread so quickly and repeatedly—all the more so thanks to social media—that no consensus can be reached. That’s a multi-ballot convention that stretches days beyond the scheduled adjournment.
It is only in this remotest of all scenarios that someone who is not currently a candidate could burst onto the scene. The convention rules committee won’t vote on the criteria for throwing a new candidate’s name into the nomination contest until the convention is actually under way. The committee also has yet to determine whether it can reconvene during the convention in order to loosen the criteria for an outsider to put his or her name up for nomination.
The Challenge Right Now: Delegates
Given all the contingencies at a convention as chaotic as this one could be, who the actual delegates are and how they are chosen becomes integral to the final outcome. That’s a nightmare for the campaigns, requiring them to wade into the delegate selection process in intricate detail at the state level. Some campaigns have begun doing this already; delegate selection gets under way this month, though most delegates will be chosen in April, May and early June.
The painful reality for the candidates is that they actually have very little say in this process, which varies greatly from state to state. Just over a quarter of the total delegates are picked directly by the candidates who win specific states. But under the fierce federalism practiced by the Republican Party, about 73 percent of the delegates—those in 44 of the 56 states and territories—will be chosen by state conventions or executive committees consisting of local activists, volunteers and elected officials. State conventions or committees may or may not select as delegates people who personally support the candidate they are bound to vote for on the first ballot.
In 2012, the convention rules committee considered an amendment to give the candidates more say in picking individual delegates. That amendment (which I supported as a member of the committee) was soundly defeated. State GOP officials made clear they wanted to be able to pick the people who worked hardest for, or gave the most money to, the state parties. They feared candidates would reward their supporters at the expense of party regulars.
Delegate selection also matters for more than just who the nominee is. Even delegates who are bound to specific candidates on the presidential roll call vote are not required to follow those candidates’ wishes for votes on party rules, challenges over which individuals from a state should be seated as its delegates, the party platform or any procedural matter to come before the convention, including the choice of a vice president or who should be the chair of the convention.
Even though this year’s primary is far more competitive, the 2012 convention proves just how important delegate selection can be. Ron Paul made a surprisingly strong showing at that convention thanks to a disciplined state convention strategy. In Iowa, Paul had finished third in the caucus vote, yet he earned 22 of the 28 votes at the convention in Tampa. In Minnesota, he had finished second in the statewide vote, yet he earned 33 of 40 delegate votes on the first convention ballot. Paul failed to get enough support to be considered in the nomination, which ended his candidacy at the convention. But his delegate maneuverings were enough to spook the Romney campaign at least briefly.
All this now places a massive burden on campaigns to organize or cajole the state conventions or state executive committee meetings. A sign of a serious campaign is one that assigns swat teams to travel to each state convention on otherwise perfectly good spring weekends to ensure that delegates loyal to them are elected. For campaigns that don’t already have organizers in the 44 states and territories where conventions and committees decide the delegates, the task is more daunting.
This state-by-state effort only intensifies at the convention, as the campaigns try to build floor whip teams to keep track of all those delegates and be sure their loyalties aren’t swayed in the weeks and hours leading up to votes in Cleveland. In a convention going beyond one ballot, this task will become all-consuming. With so many delegates becoming unbound after the first ballot, campaigns will need both data and human interaction of unprecedented sophistication in order to know each delegate’s true loyalties, whom they might listen to as they vote and what positions on what issues most motivate them.
Don’t think for a moment that the rules were designed to create any of these scenarios. But stuff happens, and a new codicil for the Law of Unintended Consequences is more likely than ever. What’s clear is that if the front-runner doesn’t have a majority by July 18, convention goers should check if they can extend their hotel reservations in Cleveland.
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