Why are we here?
Because it’s happening. Again. Yep, the speculation that maybe—just maybe—Donald Trump might not be the Republican nominee after all is back. The latest effort to deny Trump the nomination is being organized by a small group of GOP delegates who went public late last week with a last-gasp plan to rewrite the convention rules in order to free all 2,472 delegates to vote for whomever they please in Cleveland.
I thought Trump already had this sucker locked up. For the love of God, no one else is even running against him anymore. Why are we talking about this again?
There are three main reasons the #DumpTrump effort is getting so much attention. The first is that the push is being led by actual delegates this time, not the #NeverTrump conservative punditry that tried and failed to derail Trump during primary season. The second is that political reporters won’t stop dreaming of a contested convention until the balloons come down on the last night in Cleveland. And the third: Trump’s campaign is really not going well. Calling it a dumpster fire at this particular moment in time is an insult to dumpster fires.
Trump’s poll numbers have taken a dive following his racist comments about the Mexican heritage of an Indiana-born judge and his Islamophobic—and self-congratulatory—response to the Orlando, Florida, shooting. His campaign infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. His fundraising is anemic. Far too much of what little money he has raised, meanwhile, has gone either to businesses that he owns, that make hats, or that might not actually exist at all. And in the month and a half since becoming his party’s presumptive nominee, he has shown neither the interest nor the ability to recognize that winning a general election is a far different task than winning a Republican primary.
Add all that up and you get renewed contested convention speculation. It’s not that a Trump-denying turn of events is probable at this point—it most certainly is not—only that it is so-you’re-saying-there’s-a-chance possible.
Wait, but you really are saying there’s a chance?
I suppose I am. It’s a long shot—and even that description is probably overly generous—but if Trump has another couple of weeks like his past couple of weeks, he could conceivably look like a dead candidate walking by the time he gets to Cleveland. The Republican Party would then be faced with the prospect of not just a landslide loss in the presidential election but one that could also trigger a down-ballot disaster, costing the party the Senate and potentially even putting the House in play. For Republican officials, standing behind a candidate you think is racist and dangerous is one thing; standing behind a candidate you think is racist and dangerous and who could cost you your job, quite another.
OK, so how would this even work? What’s the actual plan?
The main strategy being pushed by the new (and still rather loose) coalition of anti-Trump delegates is actually remarkably simple: They want to rewrite—they’d say, simply write—the convention rules so that delegates can vote however they please.
They can do that?
They can do that. Remember: Conventions are party-run affairs, not government-run elections. As I’ve explained before, the convention writes its own rules every year. While delegates are typically bound by tradition—and a general desire to reflect the will of primary voters—in reality they are only limited by their imaginations. If enough delegates want to deny Trump the nomination, they can.
But simple doesn’t mean easy. Crafting the rules is a two-step process. First, the 112-member RNC rules committee meets a few days before the convention to write the rulebook that will be used during the convention. Those rules then need to be approved by a majority of the delegates before the nominating fun begins. Typically, the panel makes a few relatively minor tweaks to whatever rules were used at the previous convention, the entire convention gives the green light, and everyone goes about their regular business. Under the scenario now being discussed, though, the rules panel would move to unbind all the delegates, a majority of delegates would sign off on that change at the start of the convention, and then a majority of delegates would cast their presidential ballots for someone not named Donald J. Trump.
Are there people supporting this rule change on the rules committee?
Yes. While it’s not clear just how many of them there are, one of the most vocal leaders of the movement—Kendal Unruh, a delegate from Colorado—has a seat on the panel, which will give her the chance to at least put forward the proposal and ask for a vote when the rules committee meets.
So what’s the specific rule change the Dump Trump delegates are proposing?
The group wants to insert what it is calling a “conscience clause,” which it describes like so:
If any such delegate notifies the secretary of his or her intent to cast a vote of conscience, whether personal or religious, each such delegate shall be unbound and unconstrained by these rules on any given vote, including the first ballot for the selection of the Republican nominee for President of the United States, without the risk of challenge, sanction, or retribution by the Republican National Committee. Allowable personal reasons shall include the public disclosure of one or more any grievous acts of personal conduct by a nominee candidate, including but not limited to, criminally actionable acts, acts of moral turpitude or extreme prejudice, and/or notorious public statements of support for positions that clearly oppose or contradict the policies embodied in the Republican Party’s platform as established at the national convention.
So that means …
Any delegate who doesn’t want to vote for Trump won’t have to look too hard to find a reason not to. Moral turpitude? Check. Extreme prejudice? Check. Public statements at odds with the GOP’s platform? Check, check, and check.
Has anyone ever tried this before?
Actually, yes. Ted Kennedy mounted a similar last-ditch effort in 1980 to snatch the Democratic nomination away from then-President Jimmy Carter via a rule change that would have freed pledged delegates to vote any way they wanted on the floor.
Just kidding, I knew that. So what happens if it succeeds this time?
Again, it depends on the still-to-be-written convention rules, but, generally speaking: Delegates would then have the chance to vote for whomever they wanted, be it Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, or someone else entirely. If someone receives a majority of votes on the first ballot, he or she would become the nominee. If not, the delegates keep voting until someone earns a majority and the nomination.
Is there time between rounds for negotiations and convention floor campaigning? Or do the votes just come one after another in rapid fire?
Again, it would depend on what rules the delegates cook up for themselves, but typically decisions like the timing of the votes would be decided by the convention chairman and by the delegates themselves. The most likely scenario is that there would be plenty of downtime between each vote in order to allow candidates, party officials, and delegates to cobble together a big enough coalition to select a nominee.
How many rounds of voting could we be looking at?
As many as it takes to come to a consensus. In 1924, it took Democrats 103—yes, 103!—ballots to finally settle on John W. Davis as a compromise nominee following a protracted fight between front-runners William McAdoo and Al Smith. Unsurprisingly, Davis did not win the general.
So who will be our generation’s John W. Davis?
No one seems to know, which is one reason it’s difficult to take the #DumpTrump effort all that seriously. As the past six months made abundantly clear, it’s far easier to get Republicans excited about the idea of stopping Trump than it is to get them excited about a specific candidate they prefer over Trump.
Yeah, but there are names out there, right? GIVE ME NAMES.
Several of the delegates currently leading the Dump Trump charge are former Cruz supporters, which makes the Texas senator the most obvious alternative. Paul Ryan has already been fitted for his white knight armor on multiple occasions, so the House speaker is presumably also an option. And if this effort picks up steam over the next few weeks, we’ll probably also hear other familiar names pop up, such as Mitt Romney and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, as well as other well-known Republicans who have refrained from endorsing Trump.
Do any of those men actually want the nomination?
These are all wildly ambitious politicians we’re talking about, so it stands to reason they wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. But lending your name to this effort comes with great political risk. Snatching the nomination away from a man who won the most votes, delegates, and states of anyone in the GOP field could prompt an intra-party revolt that dooms the candidate in November, and beyond. If you’re Cruz or Ryan, it might make more sense to keep your head down and live to fight another day, say, Nov. 3, 2020.
Where’s the GOP establishment on this whole thing?
The Republican National Committee has made it clear they are not on board—and that they don’t even believe it’s actually happening anyway. “There is no organized effort, strategy or leader of this so-called movement,” RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday. “It is nothing more than a media creation and a series of tweets.”
Other establishment players have been more coy. Most notably, Paul Ryan suggested over the weekend that he wasn’t going to put his foot down to quash the effort, which is all the more notable given he’s likely to chair the convention. “It is not my job to tell delegates what to do, what not to do, or to weigh in on things like that,” he said on Meet the Press. “They write the rules. They make their decisions.” (As Unruh, the Colorado delegate, put it to the Washington Post: “Paul Ryan signed our permission slip.”) More recently, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sounded a similar note, telling the Associated Press that delegates should “vote the way they see fit.”
OK, when will we know if this is actually going to work?
The rules panel meets the weekend before the convention kicks off, which would mark the first battle in this fight.
If the rule change actually does happen, do we know how many delegates “voting their conscience” will not vote Trump?
Nope. Leaders of the anti-Trump effort claim they have roughly 400 delegates and alternate delegates who have expressed interest in the effort, but that claim is impossible to confirm since some of the delegates are apparently refusing to go public out of fears of political intimidation by state Republican parties and physical intimidation by Trump supporters. Even if that number is correct, though, that’s still only about a third of the number they’d need to block Trump. They still have a long way to go to convince a majority of delegates to ignore a plurality of GOP primary voters.
So this isn’t going to work, is it?