Normally, the Republican National Convention is a mere formality. The primary voters pick the presidential nominee, who in turn picks the vice presidential nominee and then the convention officially ratifies both choices. Delegates can mostly go sightseeing in the host city by day and listen to political speeches at night.
There is nothing normal about the 2016 Republican presidential race, currently being won by real estate developer and reality television star Donald Trump. July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland may be no exception: it could actually play a meaningful role in choosing the party’s presidential candidate this time.
Candidates win and lose the primary and caucus election happening all over the United States, which is why Trump traipses to New Hampshire and Ted Cruz eats fried food on a stick at Iowa state fairs. But their real purpose is to allocate convention delegates who technically vote for the presidential and vice presidential nominees.
If there is a contested convention, these delegates will have more than a technical or formal role in the process. How would this happen? Are the party bosses really going to overturn the will of the people in 2016?
Not exactly. Each state or territory that holds a primary or caucus awards a certain number of delegates. Some states are winner-take-all (win the state, get all its delegates), some are proportional (everybody gets delegates based on their percentage of the vote, usually subject to a minimum percentage threshold), some hand out delegates by congressional district.
Areas with bigger populations have more delegates, smaller populations fewer. Republicans also reward states that elect Republican candidates more frequently by giving them more delegates than reliably Democratic states, but they all have some say in the process.
In order to be the Republican presidential nominee, a candidate must win an absolute majority of delegates, which works out to a minimum of 1,237. That’s always been the case. If nobody has a majority on the first ballot, the convention will keep voting until somebody does have the majority. That person will be the nominee.
Where things get tricky is that after the first ballot, the vast majority of convention delegates are no longer bound to the candidate chosen by their state, territory or congressional district. That means on subsequent ballots, they are free agents who can vote for whichever candidate they choose. That’s how the candidate who goes in with the most delegates from the primary process can wind up out of luck.
The reason this doesn’t normally come up is that the front-running candidate usually amasses a majority of the delegates going into the convention, generally with delegates to spare. So the vote never goes beyond the first ballot and the convention merely formalizes the decision the primary electorate has already made.
Trump has only won about 47 per cent of the delegates handed out so far. If he doesn’t improve that to 50 per cent plus one by the time the convention rolls around, the nomination will be decided in Cleveland rather than in the primaries and caucuses throughout the United States.
There are several reasons for this. The Republican presidential field was unusually large, originally including 17 candidates of some notoriety. This made it more difficult to amass delegates. Secondly, the primaries and caucuses —Trump has won most of them, but Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and now John Kasich have first-place finishes too — are being won with pluralities rather than majorities.
Here’s where a contested convention begins to look a bit more like an anti-Trump coup: while Trump is the clear frontrunner, there remain significant pockets of resistance to his candidacy. Those pockets include some of the most important figures in the party.
Usually, a Republican presidential candidate has the support of either the party establishment — an ideologically diverse network of elected officials, donors and political professionals — or conservative movement activists. Both oppose Trump.
A large percentage of Republican voters are angry and don’t care what these important people think, so they are voting for Trump anyway. But if it gets to a contested convention, the party establishment and the conservative movement will be disproportionately represented. They will use their influence and mastery of the rules to deny Trump the nomination.
Consider: many of the people who will serve as delegates to the convention will be Republican activists and elected officials. That means even some of Trump’s delegates will not actually be the billionaire’s supporters. They will vote for him on the first ballot because they have to — they are bound to the candidate who won their state, territory or congressional district. But if Trump doesn’t get a majority, they will be free to defect to other candidates.
Some delegates enter the convention uncommitted. Delegates from the state of Pennsylvania are mostly unbound to any candidate, making their votes something to watch. They could rally around a ‘stop Trump’ candidate.
Trump is at a disadvantage because he is an outsider and a contested convention would be the ultimate insider’s game. He is fortunate that Cruz is also somewhat of an outsider, as he is intensely disliked by Washington, D.C. Republicans, and Kasich is far behind in the delegate count. The insider candidates like Rubio and Jeb Bush are already mostly gone from the race.
That brings us to the next interesting wrinkle: a contested convention would probably nominate one of the candidates still running for president who shows up to Cleveland with some delegates, but they don’t have to. They could draft and nominate another candidate who isn’t running. Possible options include 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, House Speaker Paul Ryan or any of the candidates who have already dropped out.
Trump isn’t powerless. First, he can prevent a contested convention entirely by winning a majority of delegates outright. He may do so if he continues to beat Cruz and Kasich in most primaries, especially in the states that are winner-take-all.
Secondly, a candidate must have majority support from eight state delegations to have their name placed in nomination. Trump is currently the only candidate to qualify, although that rule could always be changed at the convention.
Thirdly, there has been only one contested convention since the modern primary process began, the 1976 Republican National Convention. The man who came in with the most delegate votes, President Gerald Ford, ended up winning, narrowly beating Ronald Reagan.
In an era where the major party nominees have been chosen through a democratic process, a nominee who received far fewer primary votes than Trump or no votes at all would face a legitimacy crisis, like when George W. Bush won the presidency while losing the popular vote. Trump’s delegates would undoubtedly revolt—in his words ‘riot’—and his voters, pluralities of Republicans in most states, might stay home, dooming the eventual nominee.
The Republican delegates may have to put their sightseeing plans on hold this summer.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.