How the Republican party can escape Donald Trump – and Ted Cruz

The convention process makes it difficult for the Republican party to escape its gruesome twosome - but not impossible. 

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It can be hard, in the fight for the Republican nomination, to keep score. That’s because the points that matter are not votes cast or states won, but delegates: individuals pledged to vote for a candidate at the convention in July.

Six weeks after the last primaries have ended, 2,472 Republican delegates will meet in Cleveland, Ohio to select their party’s nominee. A candidate needs the votes of a majority of these – at least 1,237 – to become the nominee. Just getting more than anyone else isn’t enough. Most of the delegates will be required (“pledged” or “bound”) to vote a certain way based on the result of their states’ primaries or caucuses.

Each state has its own rules determining how their delegates are divvied up. Some (like Florida and Ohio) simply give all of theirs to the overall winner; some (like Iowa and North Carolina) divide them among the candidates in proportion to their vote shares; some (like South Carolina and Wisconsin) give three to the winner of each congressional district, with a bonus for the overall winner; some (like Colorado) directly elect individual delegates, who declare beforehand for whom they will vote. Other states have more complicated variations on these rules: for example, a proportional system but with a threshold below which candidates receive no delegates or a threshold above which the winner gets them all.

These are the “pledged” delegate totals you’ll see in the news: currently Trump 754, Cruz 465, Kasich 144. (These totals differ slightly from outlet to outlet, due to vagaries in some state’s rules. I use the count produced by the excellent Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago.) Trump could still pick up 483 more pledged delegates to get him to 1,237 – though that would require him winning 60% of those available in the remaining contests.

If he falls short, Trump will try to woo enough “unbound” delegates to take his total to 1,237. Some states do not bind all their delegates through primaries or caucuses. Colorado Republicans, for example, allow three of their delegates – their state chairman and their two representatives on the Republican National Committee – to decide for themselves how to vote, and to change their minds at any time. Pennsylvania will send 17 delegates to the convention bound to vote for the winner of its primary, but a further 54 free to vote as they choose. All of North Dakota’s 28 delegates will be unbound. In addition, many of the delegates won by candidates who have now dropped out of the race (such as Marco Rubio and Ben Carson) can choose whom to support instead. At least 147 delegates – and potentially more than 250 – will go to the convention free to vote however they like.

But what if, even with the delegates bound to him and any unbound delegates he’s able to persuade, Trump doesn’t get a majority when the convention votes? Then the convention will vote again, and potentially again and again and again, until some candidate does secure a majority. The crucial difference is that most states only bind their delegates for the first vote (or “ballot”). After that, they’re free to vote for whomever they wish.

So while Trump won all of South Carolina’s 50 delegates in the primary last month, any or all of those 50 could end up voting for someone else if he doesn’t secure a majority on the convention’s first ballot. Like the National Environment Research Council, South Carolina’s delegates could turn to their voters and say “We know you wanted to name the ship Boaty McBoatface, but we think that’s a stupid name and wouldn’t stand a chance against Hillary Clinton in November, so we’re calling it Ted Cruz instead.”

That’s certainly the scenario Cruz is hoping for, but he’s probably too conservative and too unpopular to win against Clinton as well. So could the delegates, no longer bound by the primary results, choose to nominate someone else – John Kasich, perhaps, or Mitt Romney – who would have a better chance in the general election?

Under the current rules, probably not. Rule 40 of the Rules of the Republican Party requires a candidate to have the support of a majority of the delegates from at least eight states in order to have their name put forward. Only Trump is guaranteed to meet this requirement by virtue of his victories so far. If he stops Trump getting to 1,237 before the convention, Cruz will almost certainly have met this requirement too. Kasich, on the other hand, has a majority of delegates from only one state –Ohio, the only contest he’s won so far – and is unlikely to manage it in seven more. Someone like Mitt Romney, who hasn’t run in this year’s primaries, would obviously not meet this requirement.

But rules can be changed. Indeed, this very requirement was heightened in 2012 to keep Ron Paul’s name from being placed in nomination against Romney’s. The rules for each convention are set by the Rules Committee, which consists of a subset of the convention delegates. If a majority of that committee wants to allow Kasich, Romney or someone else to become the nominee, they can amend Rule 40. However, if members of the committee supporting Trump or Cruz combine for a majority, they could block such a change and restrict the field of possible nominees to two. (Here it’s the personal preferences of the delegates that matter: primaries and caucuses do not bind anyone when it comes to voting on the rules.)

Right now, the delegates are mostly unknown Republican members. In many cases, they haven’t even been chosen yet, but will be selected at state conventions. But if Donald Trump doesn’t make it to 1,237 in the remaining primaries, those delegates are going to receive a lot more attention – and perhaps some fancy dinner invitations – from all sides as we head into the convention. And we’ll find out how good at persuasion the author of The Art of the Deal really is.

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics.