It is easy, but wrong, to imagine all the delegates attending the Republican National Convention as being members of distinct teams (e.g. Team Trump or Establishment). Rather, a vast majority of the delegates, no doubt having a preferred candidate, will care more about party unity than anything else. It’s easier, but even more wildly incorrect, to think that party bosses have control over what happens on the floor of a contested convention. Sure, they can postpone votes until the next day if they fear a swell in an unfavorable direction, they can lie to members of their state delegation about the rules, they can enforce those rules with bias, they can filibuster with roll call votes, but nominating fights are goat rodeos, not smoke filled rooms. So, you might ask, what will a contested GOP convention look like?
Phase I: The Delegate Counts.
To start, there isn’t really any such thing as a real delegate count or even a set number of delegates. Most delegates are bound, meaning they must vote on the first ballot for the candidate they claimed during the primaries / caucuses to support or else… nothing. Nothing happens to them if they vote for someone else, either out of incompetence, indifference, or ulterior motive. Some state delegations will be controlled by bosses that know how to manage their delegates, such as making sure no one is whispering in their ears or divulging information into the twitter-sphere, but most will be impotent and inaccurately state their own influence to campaigns seeking their support. Don’t get me wrong, most delegates will faithfully execute their service to the party, but with 2,472 of them it is safe to assume that the first ballot delegate counts floating around before the convention will have a standard deviation of about 100 delegates.
Phase II: The Rules Committee
Paul Ryan will likely chair the convention per recent tradition, but has nothing to do with the Rules Committee, which will determine how a candidate is chosen and who can vote as a delegate. That’s right, the rules haven’t officially even been set as of yet. That committee meets this week in Florida to determine the arcane, but incredibly important, parliamentarian mechanisms of the convention. The first major decision of the Rules Committee will be to determine who is eligible to be nominated. In 2012, primary victories in a minimum of 8 states was required, a rule egregiously introduced to spite Ron Paul supporters. This will likely be removed by old guard Republicans, unless they are outflanked by the Cruz and Trump campaigns seeking to keep that rule in place.
Having tendered a Shermanesque statement and being chair of the convention, you might reasonably think that Paul Ryan would be unable or maybe disqualified from receiving the nomination. No. Horatio Seymour was all of these, but despite pleading with the convention until exhaustion not to do it, he was nominated from the chair by the Democratic Party in 1868. In fact, members of the RNC Rules Committee are considering reducing Ryan’s power at the convention in order to insulate him from any decisions that would lead to a clear conflict of interest if he were drafted.
Next, they will seat contested delegates. There will likely be 2,472 delegates at the opening of the convention, but there will be many more than that who feel they should rightly be seated. Legal teams from the campaigns will argue the intricacies of each of state’s delegate allocation rules in an attempt to load the deck. In particular, local party leaders throughout the country will screw the Trump campaign as specific delegates are chosen with the second and third ballots in mind. Trump, with a campaign foundation of airwaves and hairspray rather than ground game, will be out maneuvered at every stage and will likely have legitimate concerns that the Rules Committee will flagrantly ignore. Headed into Cleveland, Trump will no doubt be simultaneously screaming bloody murder and guaranteeing a first ballot victory.
Phase III: Opening the Convention
The convention will open with a failed attempt to adopt the rules. It will likely fail because either the Cruz and Trump campaigns will want to test whether they can sit additional delegates. Campaigns can sit additional delegates out of nowhere? Yep. Teddy Roosevelt brought an extra 300 odd delegates to the Chicago Coliseum in 1912, but was stonewalled by his former friend and Secretary of State who thought Roosevelt as mature as a six year old, then more recently thought him completely mad. So, more than 2,472 self-proclaimed delegates will be massing in Cleveland.
Well, more precisely they will try. The Temporary Chairman will be running the show at this point, which may very well be Mitch McConnell (that guy Ted Cruz called a “liar” last year), and before delegates can vote for a chair, they must first be sat. The way this works is simple and will serve as the first real vote that tests Trump’s support on the floor of the convention. The official delegates, even those whose seats are under contention, vote on the validity of each contested delegation. If Trump wants to sit 12 delegates from Colorado, Trump delegates on the floor will agree and vote to sit them. These vote totals in early afternoon of the second day of the convention will indicate Trumps strength and likelihood of a first ballot victory that evening.
Next there will be attempts to amend the rules. The Rules Committee only makes suggestions, and the convention itself holds the real power for rule making. If the statue that limits the nominee to someone that won at least 8 states is removed by the Rules Committee, an attempt by Cruz and Trump will be made to reinsert it here. Together they will have a clear a majority to effectively do so, but they will be in a parliamentary fight with the leader of the United States Senate. Chances are, any amendment that tries to limit a dark horse / white knight candidate will never come up for a vote on the floor because of rules that govern minority candidate protection (e.g. John Kasich). No one cared when this happened to Ron Paul in 2012.
Finally, Paul Ryan, the self-described non-candidate and speaker of the house, will be elected chair of the convention by a huge majority and with great fanfare.
Phase IV: The First Ballot
After the convention chair is seated and the rules adopted, a series of roll calls and speeches will lead up to the first ballot. This will test the civility of the delegations. Cruz, Trump, and Kasich will each be given a slot for a surrogate or two to speak on their behalf. The Cruz campaign will seek to make the Trump delegation look like an unruly mob in an attempt to get them to act as such. Trump, who doesn’t care for traditions, may address the convention directly, will name all the states he won and all the polls he is leading, and then call Ted Cruz a liar. Kasich will look very appealing.
The first ballot will come after a series of roll calls and procedural speeches designed to suck the energy out of the room. Then, a majority of bound delegates will cast a vote for the person they promised they would, a small minority of bound delegates will utterly break the rules and vote for whomever they want, and a substantial number of unbound delegates will make the outcome very unknowable. It’s not clear if this favors or hurts Trump, but it guarantees a degree of uncertainty that governs delegate behavior. Even though delegates are bound by rules to act a certain way, infrequently but predictably some will pass right through the rules undetected, as if the rules were never there.
Phase V: The Inevitable Trump Collapse.
If Trump fails on the first ballot, he will hemorrhage delegates like a piñata dealt a fatal blow. But that’s a big if. Something that hasn’t got much attention is that many uncommitted delegates will actually vote for Trump. I think it’s a reasonable question to ask why an otherwise conscious, self-aware, and unbound individual who is knowledgeable of politics would choose to vote for a human Hindenburg to lead their Party into battle. Because he’s going to explode, and the party will be there to scream “oh, the humanity” and then pick up the pieces for the next election. There is a legitimate fear that if the convention egregiously steals the nomination from Trump, there won’t be a Republican Party left to save.
If, in fact, there is no first ballot winner, support will initially swell in Cruz’s direction. A majority of bound delegates are released for the second ballot, and then virtually all delegates are unbound after that. Cruz will need to seize a majority before Trump’s corpse hits the convention floor. However, this will be very difficult with the cerebral Paul Ryan controlling the pace of the balloting. It would be a shocking occurrence if the convention is not called to recess for at least one night, in an attempt to build a consensus for an alternative name to float to the surface. Cruz only has a handful of ballots before his momentum falters and his candidacy breaks for the rear, so he will press on all fronts. Calls to draft Ryan or Romney will be deafening, but a lack of cohesion may fracture any dark horse effort. It will be the greatest American political show of the 21st century.
Phase VI: The Nomination, the Vice Presidency, and Conquering a Peace.
Whoever wins the nomination will probably have to sell the VP spot, State, and Defense to do it. This without the proper vetting protocols, now commonplace in the post-Gary Hart era. Therefore, expect powerhouse Republican names on the short lists: McCain, Graham, Portman, Perry, etc. If Trump loses, only he knows how he will handle it. There will be viable options for him to bolt and take the nomination of some other already established third party. His supporters will beg him to do it, under the theory Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives deluded themselves with in 1912: that Democrats will swing to them in large numbers. They won’t.
In 1912, Elihu Root, Robert Bacon, and many of his old friends (save Henry Cabot) sank Teddy’s nomination not because they thought Taft could beat whomever the Democrats were going to nominate the following month, in fact they knew he would lose, but because they were more afraid of Roosevelt taking the Party in a direction their conservative principles were unwilling to follow. It split the GOP, but only for 4 years, and more importantly kept economic conservatism its foundation for another hundred. The Republican Party is different now than it was then, more southern and in a strictly relative sense less educated, but it seems difficult to imagine that the GOP comes out of the 2016 convention looking like it has for the last 8 years. It will either look like the Tea Party or like your father’s GOP, but no longer can both occupy the same location in the spacetime continuum.