The Slatest

The Chaos of This Summer’s Contested GOP Convention Has Already Begun

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand onstage with their families as balloons drop during the final day of the 2012 Republican National Convention on Aug. 30, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican race remains on track for a contested convention this summer, during which pretty much anything could happen. But we won’t have to wait until July for our first peek at the chaos. The Republican National Committee is convening in Florida later this week for its spring meeting, an event that is already exposing the fault lines that are likely to crack wide open in Cleveland this summer.

The traditionally low-key planning summit—which runs from Wednesday through Friday—is shaping up to be the opening skirmish in the coming three-month long war over the Byzantine rulebook that could decide which candidate walks away with the GOP nomination. The fighting got off to an early start over the weekend when one high-profile RNC member went public with his complaints, but it will really rev up when the RNC rules committee convenes.

Important thing to know: The rules committee doesn’t actually get to write the rulebook for this summer’s convention—it can only recommend changes that a second rules panel will consider this summer before deciding on its own rules package, which will then still need to be approved on the convention floor. How ideal!

Let’s take this to FAQ format. Fire away.

So, there are two rules committees?

Yep. There is the Republican Party’s Standing Committee on Rules, and the Republican National Convention’s Committee on Rules. The standing committee is made up of 56 GOP officials—one from each of the 50 states and six U.S. territories—and spends the four years between each national convention examining and discussing changes to both primary and convention rules. The convention committee, meanwhile, consists of 112 delegates—one man and one woman from each of the states and territories—and operates while the convention is actually in session.

That sounds … confusing.

To say the least. But the basic flow chart looks something likes this:

  • the standing committee draws up a suite of recommended rule changes,
  • which the full Republican National Committee then approves,
  • which the convention committee then considers in Cleveland when writing its rules,
  • which then must be approved by a majority vote on the convention floor.

Until that final vote happens, its best to consider the GOP rulebook a rough draft.

OK, then what are this coming week’s big fights about?

There are two major issues that could come up—either in the formal meeting or on its sidelines—that could ultimately decide whether a white knight or some other dark horse is able to ride onto the convention floor in the event Donald Trump doesn’t have the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot. The first is over a specific rule, while the second has do with the way the convention will be run.

OK, explain in order please.

The first concerns Rule 40(b), which was written in 2012 by Mitt Romney’s team to deny Ron Paul supporters the chance to stage a protest in prime time. The rule requires a candidate to have the support of a majority of at least eight state or territory delegations in order to have his or her name formally placed into nomination. If the eight-state rule stands this year, Trump and Cruz would likely be the only two candidates that would reach that standard, effectively turning the initial ballots into a contest between the two.

Who wants to change the rule?

John Kasich’s campaign has been the most vocal about rewriting 40(b), which makes sense given he’s won only his home state this year and would need a miracle to reach the threshold. The Ohio governor, though, is likely to find support from those establishment-minded RNC members and GOP delegates who have yet to give up hope that someone other than Trump or Cruz will emerge as the nominee—regardless of whether they’re backing Kasich or dreaming of some other, TBD alternative.

So how could that rule change?

Any number of ways. Republicans desperate to stop Trump and Cruz want to tweak that rule to include however many candidates would create the greatest chance of a deadlock in the early rounds of voting, thereby setting the stage for someone else to snag the nomination—be that one of the less-successful 2016 rivals (like John Kasich or Rick Perry) or someone who never actually competed during the primary season at all (like Mitt Romney or Condoleezza Rice). Those backing Trump or Cruz, meanwhile, will do everything they can to keep the rule in place and protect their candidates from being slayed by a white knight on the convention floor.

So if you’re not formally nominated, delegates can’t vote for you?

Actually, no, that’s not true. Even if Trump and Cruz are the only two people who are formally nominated, delegates can still cast their votes for someone else. Those delegates bound to John Kasich or Marco Rubio, or instance, will still be required to vote for their assigned man for as many ballots as are required to by state rules. Unbound delegates, meanwhile, can cast their votes for whomever they like, regardless of the names on the official list.

Then why is the rule so important?

Having your name placed into nomination comes with a number of important perks—the biggest of which is the chance to address the convention before the first vote—that are seen as crucial to amassing the support needed to win the nomination. Without that platform, a candidate who isn’t nominated will have a difficult time consolidating the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote to emerge as a legitimate alternative. And, even if they are able to, they would need to overcome the perception that the GOP establishment was pulling levers behind the scenes to snatch the nomination away from the two men who won the most states and delegates during the primary season.

Take Kasich, for example: If the rule is changed to allow his name to be placed into nomination, he’ll instantly become the clear alternative for any establishment-minded unbound delegates. But if it is not, he’ll look no different than all the other candidates who won a few delegates in a primary season dominated by Trump and Cruz. (Heck, based only on delegates won, Rubio could conceivably argue that he’s more deserving of the nomination than Kasich.) Without a clear alternative nominated, any establishment-minded unbound delegates may feel they have no other choice but to vote for Cruz in a bid to block Trump.

OK, and the other fight?

This one is less about a specific rule and more about how the rules are enforced. Traditionally, the convention runs according to the rules of order used by the U.S. House of  Representatives. That system affords a relatively large amount of power to the man or woman holding the gavel. But one RNC member is pushing a switch to Robert’s Rules of Order, which would shift much of the decision-making from the presiding officer—widely expected to be Paul Ryan this summer—to the 2,472 individual delegates, granting each of them the chance to wreak havoc on the process by raising objections and points of order. (The House rules, meanwhile, give the presiding officer a lot of leeway to deny such motions.)

Why would someone want to do that?

The man behind the proposal, Oregon GOP committeeman Solomon Yue, maintains that it is the only way to ensure that a contested convention unfolds out in the open. “We should operate in total political transparency,” he told Politico last week. While it’s unclear exactly how the switch to Robert’s rules would impact the proceedings, at least one member of the standing rules committee has suggested that it would make it more difficult for the GOP establishment to reopen the nominating process midconvention to offer the candidate of its choice—which they’d presumably want to do to give their preferred alternative the chance to address the convention and rally the establishment troops.

More generally, though, the switch would probably benefit Cruz, since he appears likely to arrive in Cleveland with the largest number of loyal delegates (even though many of his supporters will be required to vote for Trump on the first ballot or two as a result of their states’ primaries or caucuses). At the same time, Trump has made no secret that he’s willing to make life uncomfortable if he’s denied the nomination he thinks he’s earned, and this rule change would give his supporters plenty of opportunities to do just that on the convention floor.

And where does the RNC brass come down on the changes?

They’re not fans. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea for us next week—before the convention—to make serious rules changes or recommendations of changes right now,” Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus said during a Sunday appearance on CNN. “I think we are in a politically charged environment, I think it’s too complicated.”

But won’t things only get even more politically charged as we get closer to Cleveland?


More in Slate:

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