The Slatest

The GOP’s Newest Trump-Blocking Ploy: Zombie Delegates

Sen. Marco Rubio, flanked by his family, announces he is suspending his campaign after losing his home state of Florida to Donald Trump on March 15.

Angel Valentin/Getty Images

How far will Republicans go to deny Donald Trump the nomination at a contested convention this summer? Pretty damn far. Consider: Marco Rubio, a man no longer running for president, is lobbying party officials to allow him to hold on to the 170-odd delegates he won while he was still in the race. As MSNBC reports, at least one state party is playing along with the charade of Rubio’s undead candidacy:

Rubio sent a signed letter to the Chair of the Alaska Republican Party requesting the five delegates he won in that state “remain bound to vote for me” at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. Rubio copied National Chairman Reince Preibus on the letter—and sent the same request to all 21 states and territories where he won delegates, a source working for Rubio confirmed. The Alaska GOP granted the request this week.

Alaska Republican Chairman Peter Goldberg said his party would normally strip Rubio of his delegates—in fact, it had already made plans to divvy them up between Trump and Ted Cruz. He decided to reverse course, though, under the premise that Rubio has been careful to say only that he has “suspended” his campaign as opposed to “dropped out,” a semantic difference the state chairman admitted had made no difference in the past. “Rubio said, ‘I want my delegates,’ and I said, okay,” is how Goldberg eloquently put it to MSNBC.

For those of you unversed by the arcane and byzantine rules of political conventions, a quick reminder: The vast majority of delegates will arrive at the GOP convention this summer “bound” to a candidate based on his performance in their state’s primary or caucus. Many states either unbind or reallocate those delegates if that candidate withdraws from the race before the convention, creating an opportunity for the remaining candidates to add to their delegate haul before the first roll call vote. In Alaska’s case, Rubio’s five delegates would have been split between Cruz and Trump—who finished 1-2 in the state’s GOP caucus earlier this year—but instead will now stay bound to Rubio on the first ballot.

The loss of a couple delegates that Trump didn’t actually win is unlikely to decide the nomination by itself. But if other states also grant Rubio’s wish, Trump will find it much more difficult to pick up the delegates he needs in the event he arrives at the convention a few dozen shy of the 1,237 required to lock up the nomination.

To get a sense of the scale here, Rubio is trying to lay claim to 172 delegates. That’s the same number that will be at stake in California’s winner-take-most primary in June. Each extra delegate who’s in play before the first convention vote is one more delegate Trump can woo with the promise of a job in his administration or a ride on his personal helicopter. If Trump comes up short on the first ballot, though, more and more delegates (including his own) become unbound with every successive vote, opening the door to a variety of scenarios, few of which favor Trump.

There’s still a long way to go between now and the end of the GOP primary season, and Trump could make all this moot if he secures the delegates he needs before then. But if he hasn’t locked up the nomination before the convention, expect the anti-Trump crowd to try everything imaginable to stop him. As Rubio’s zombie delegate ploy illustrates, there is no limit to what the GOP can do, since the party rulebook can be quite literally rewritten in Cleveland.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.