If no candidate gets to the magical threshold of 1,237 party delegates, the Republican national convention would become very messy indeed – and insiders can’t even agree on how it would play out
Donald Trump hopes to make a decisive move towards the 1,237 delegates he needs to lock up the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, when Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and the Northern Mariana Islands all vote, with a total of 367 delegates up for grabs as the contest moves to a winner-takes-all phase in many states.
Texas senator Ted Cruz is attempting to encourage Republicans to rally round him as the “stop Trump” candidate. But increasingly the GOP establishment have been floating the idea of preventing the New York businessman from winning the nomination not at the ballot box but in a “contested convention”, which would bring another candidate – Florida senator Marco Rubio, Ohio governor John Kasich and 2012 GOP duo Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have all been floated – in over the heads of the voters at the party’s July convention.
“Reagan and Ford battled it out in a contested convention,” Cruz told Fox News this week. “That’s what conventions are for.”
For the first time since the invention of social media and 24-hour cable news, a major party may decide its presidential nominee on the convention floor. But what exactly is a contested convention?
In the dark ages of American politics, the elaborate politicking of a presidential primary was once condensed into a political convention. For decades, instead of a long public process during which candidates traipsed from Iowa to New Hampshire and onwards across the country for series of primaries and caucuses, presidential nominees were chosen in overheated convention halls and the smoke-filled rooms in adjacent hotels.
However, as more states instituted primaries to select their delegates, a process that accelerated greatly in the 1970s, the conventions receded in importance. The last political convention to go more than one ballot was the Democrats’ in 1952, when they nominated Adlai Stevenson.
And the last one where there was even a shred of suspense – as Cruz recalled – was held by the Republicans in 1976 when Ronald Reagan forced Gerald Ford into a primary contest in an unsuccessful attempt to snatch the nomination from the incumbent president’s grip. Reagan would have to wait until 1980 before becoming his party’s candidate and winning two terms as president.
The Republican party’s rules require that the winning candidate for the presidential nomination receives the support of a majority of delegates at the party convention, which this year will be held in Cleveland in July.
With 2,473 delegates attending the convention, this means the nominee needs the support of 1,237 of those attending. However, with four candidates still in the race, even Trump, the frontrunner, may not reach this threshold, and the party’s byzantine rules then create the potential for anarchy to ensue.
The problems come in several forms. The first is that since conventions have been long thought to be vestigial parts of American politics, candidates’ campaigns are not fully prepared for the delegate chase – a full scale 50-state scramble. Campaigns have to take care to not just make the ballot in every state but to fill their slates of delegates with names and ensure that those delegates pledged to them are actual supporters and not what veteran Republican strategist John Yob calls “supporters in name only”, or SINOs.
Yob, who guided delegate strategy for Rand Paul’s failed presidential campaign this year and is also the author of Campaign Chaos , a book on a potential contested convention, told the Guardian that one of the key tells for a successful delegate effort was “how effective campaigns are at keeping SINOs from being elected”.
Some delegates could ignore primary results
In addition, in many states delegates are in fact selected in an entirely separate process from the primaries currently being carried out under such vast media scrutiny. In the event of a contested convention, the primary voters’ decisions in such states like Michigan and Virginia potentially could be completely ignored by the delegates. According to the prevailing interpretation of current Republican National Committee rules though, delegates are bound on the first ballot by the results of their state’s nominating contest. However, after that, many (the rules vary state by state) can do what they want.
Furthermore, the convention itself decides what rules govern it, and delegates are not bound when it comes to votes on changing the rules.
The common belief is that the candidate most under threat from a contested convention would be Donald Trump.
The Republican frontrunner is a political outsider who is viewed as anathema by many in the GOP establishment. The hope among some in the Republican party is that even if Trump achieves a clear majority, delegates formally bound to the real estate mogul on the first ballot would in fact vote to change the rules and then defect.
However, Barry Bennett, a top Trump operative dealing with much of the delegate process for his campaign, told the Guardian: “Our theory all along is that we have to get delegates that are not part of politics of usual and [are] 100% loyal to us.”
In addition, up to 112 delegates – many of whom come from territories and not states – will arrive at the convention without any obligation to support a particular candidate. As Yob noted, delegations such as those from Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands (where he is standing to be a delegate) will play a crucial role as a result.
These unbound delegates though should not be interpreted as agents of the party establishment who will act in tandem to block Trump. As Bennett noted: “I know what these delegates want. They want a deal. They are going to act in their own self-interest, and not in the interest of Rubio, Cruz or Romney. It’s like herding cats. This notion that they will all line up together, it’s just ludicrous.”
Bennett, the Trump operative, who previously served as Ben Carson’s campaign manager on an effort where delegates from the territories were assiduously courted, was also scornful of the idea that the unpledged delegates would “lay down, put their self-interest aside to vote for an establishment candidate”.
In addition, all of the delegates from three states – Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming – will be unbound, as will portions of the delegations from Louisiana and Oklahoma. The result is that internal machinations in obscure contests such as the Colorado state convention in April could be as important as far better covered events such as Super Tuesday.
Major obstacle … for anyone but Trump
Campaigns also face another obstacle in Rule 40b of the Republican party, which states that candidates need to win the support of a majority of the delegations in eight different states or territories to have their name placed into nomination at a convention. So far, Trump has won seven states under this rule, Cruz has won four and Rubio has only one.
Party insiders have long assumed that the rule, implemented solely to block libertarian Ron Paul’s name from being placed into nomination in 2012, would be modified before the 2016 convention.
If and until it is, however, it serves as a major obstacle for candidates seeking to have their names considered on the first ballot. (The Cruz campaign dispatched an operative to Guam in August under the assumption that Rule 40b might still apply and to gain a leg up.)
How a contested convention would play out is still unclear. One Republican operative familiar with the delegate process claimed to the Guardian that “Cruz has the highest quality delegates”. The operative ranked Trump second, Rubio third and Kasich last in this regard.
The Republican noted that while Trump “files more delegates than any other campaign”, the impression left is that “he sends out a mass email [to supporters] and encourages everyone to apply” – in other words, that he carries out little checking into whether his delegates are truly loyal.
Would it damage the GOP?
Almost every recent example of a contested convention has ended badly for the party concerned. “When you look back in history, highly contested conventions tended to be a disadvantage to the party that had them,” Yob said – although he noted there were exceptions, the most recent being Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House victory after a multi-ballot convention in 1932.
Yet because of the unique nature of Trump supporters, many of whom are new to the Republican party, a contested convention in 2016 may be less damaging than might be assumed. Rick Tyler, a former top aide to Cruz, told the Guardian a contested convention “would cause minimal damage, and the reason I say that is because a significant portion of Trump’s voters are not party people”.
They were not “the people who show up to county committee meetings, state committee meetings”, he said. “These aren’t our folks.”
‘You would have a revolt’
To Tyler, if no one gets 1,237 delegates, “Trump will be on equal footing with everybody else”. In his view, “everyone who wants to put their name forth for nomination would be on equal footing and then … let’s assume they go through the process of casting the first ballot and then all the deal-making begins.”
However, he did see potential for a contested convention to greatly weaken the party. “If the establishment tries to put in a Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan or someone like that because you would have a revolt,” said Tyler. “Now conservatives would be aligned with the Trump people.”
But top Republican operatives are still skeptical that a contested convention will come to pass.
Stuart Stevens, a top consultant for Romney in 2012 and author of The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear, a novel about a contested convention, noted that Trump is likely to win every delegate in New York and New Jersey and is skeptical about any scenario where the frontrunner does not get to the magic 1,237 threshold – provided he wins Florida’s winner-take-all primary on Tuesday.
Stevens thought if Trump was under 1,000 delegates at the time of the convention, “he could be beat”.
Cruz has called the possibility of a contested convention “the fevered talk of the Washington establishment”. But Stevens dismissed this: “The guy who is running second saying I think it’s dishonorable to win in overtime … Real men don’t kick field goals.”
In 1924, HL Mencken wrote of that year’s Democratic national convention: “There is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or a hanging. It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious, it is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming.”
Yet that description sums up an era in which the entire modern year-long primary process was consolidated into a few days. As Clarke Reed, the former chair of the Mississippi Republican party who played a key role in the last contested convention in 1976, told the Guardian far more laconically, a contested convention this year is “likely to lead to all kinds of games being played”.
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