Interested observers of this year’s Republican presidential race have focused chiefly on the outcome of the primaries and caucuses to be held in each state. Rightly so, of course, as the outcome of those individual contests determine how that state’s delegates are required to vote at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer. But in most cases, the outcome of those elections don’t determine who the delegates will be.
Instead, most of the convention delegates will be chosen in separate party-run processes. Virginia’s RNC delegate selection is typical in this regard, in that it elects three delegates from each Congressional District at the respective district’s convention, and then a number of at-large delegates are elected at the state convention. In most years, these races for national delegate are rather sleepy affairs, and often simply boil down to local popularity contests that yield a delegation composed largely of well-known party insiders and various and sundry elected officials. This is because no matter who was elected as a delegate, their vote for president at the convention was a function of the results of the presidential primary.
This year, however, is different. Who the delegates are actually matters in 2016.
Why? Under RNC rules and the laws of each state, the state’s delegation is bound to vote in accordance with the results of their respective primaries/caucuses. However, that binding effect is only for the first ballot. This year, for the first time in the modern era, we have a pretty decent chance of having a contested convention. That is, a convention where the nominee doesn’t have a majority of delegate votes on the first ballot. Instead, we face a situation where multiple rounds of balloting could decide the eventual nominee, and where the delegates then get to vote for the candidate of their own preference.
Thus, the preferences and politics of national delegate candidates should matter a great deal to Republican voters, who will want to ensure that their preferences are properly represented not just in the first round of voting, but in subsequent rounds where the large field of candidates will be engaged in very intense and direct attempts at persuading delegates to back them (or an allied candidate) for the nomination.
Unsurprisingly, RNC members and others who manage to get themselves elected as delegates typically tend toward “establishment” sympathies, and cannot be expected to carry the same sentiments as the large majority of Republicans upset with the old order (Virginia’s own Morton Blackwell being a quite notable exception). In fact, this is what is keeping some of the more establishment-type candidates afloat in this race.
You see, candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich know they won’t win outright, but with the looming potential for Donald Trump to take a large plurality of the first round votes—but not a majority—they are positioning themselves to be the candidate who can unify enough of the rest of the party to consolidate an anti-Trump, anti-Cruz majority at the convention. As Real Clear Politics wrote about this month’s RNC winter meeting in Charleston:
Say, for example, John Kasich stays in the race through Ohio’s March 15 primary. As governor, Kasich is likely to win his home state and its winner-take-all 66 delegates. He’s also polling above 10 percent in New Hampshire, which is the threshold to win some delegates there in its proportional allotment system. Several other states have proportional primaries (with various thresholds to actually win delegates), giving Kasich several opportunities to pick up delegates here and there. Theoretically, he could do well enough to amass 200 or so (1,237 delegates are needed to win the nomination outright).
The same could apply to Jeb Bush. If he stays in the race until Florida’s March 15 primary, there’s a chance he could win his state’s 99 delegates in its winner-take-all contest. With Sen. Lindsey Graham’s endorsement of him on Friday, Bush could be poised to pick up a few in Graham’s home state of South Carolina, which awards its delegates proportionally. Bush could come out of the early primaries with a sizable bloc of delegates without winning anywhere but his home state.
Scenarios like that could make either man a power broker at a convention without a presumptive nominee. In a multi-ballot convention, which hasn’t happened for Republicans since 1948, the candidate who gathers support on the second or third ballots could end up as the nominee.
Kasich, Bush, Chris Christie or any other lower-tier GOP contender who has the money and the will to stay in the primary long enough to amass a few hundred loyal delegates could also prove to be a power broker in deciding a nominee by pushing their support toward one contender in the second round of voting.
“This time it could happen,” Morton Blackwell, an RNC member from Virginia who is a longtime Rules Committee member, said of a multi-ballot convention. And the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention wouldn’t necessarily end up as the nominee.
Perhaps just as important as a delegate’s vote on their preference for president is how they’ll vote on procedural questions. A good example of this is RNC’s Rule 40(b), which requires that for a candidate’s name to be placed into nomination, that candidate must have secured a majority of first ballot (i.e., mostly bound) delegates from 8 or more states. This controversial rule was instituted in 2012 to muzzle Ron Paul at that year’s convention, and to grease the skids for the renomination of what supporters hoped would be an incumbent President Romney in 2016.
However, with a fractured field of candidates this year, and the potential that maybe not more than one or two candidates could have their names placed into nomination as a result, Rule 40(b) could have disastrous effect. There are efforts afoot to change the rule, but ultimately only the convention delegates themselves can make the final call on that. If a majority of the delegates sense a need to somehow shut out Trump (or Cruz, or even Rubio), manipulation of the rules becomes an easy way to do that.
Thus, who we elect as national delegates at our district and state conventions really matters more than it ever has before.
So what can you do about it? Republican voters who want a voice in that process must pay attention to when their local mass meetings are held. Those mass meetings are the bodies that elect delegates to the state and district conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the national convention. Get involved: run for state and district delegate, and make sure you get your paperwork filed on time. Then show up at your mass meeting, and the district and state conventions, and vote for candidates who will carry your preferences to Cleveland.
There is literally no other way to ensure that the outcome of the Republican National Convention this year will truly reflect the will of ordinary, grassroots Republican voters. Just do it.