It is looking more and more likely that no candidate on the Republican side will arrive at the convention with enough delegates to claim the nomination on the first ballot. Both businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could still potentially win the necessary 1,237 delegates needed for a majority, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich has no possible path to a first-ballot win. So long as all three remain in the race, a contested convention seems more and more likely.
This likelihood makes the arcane process of delegate selection even more critical than usual, because most of the delegates sent to the convention will be, after the first ballot, free to support whichever candidate they prefer. The Washington Post explains some of the intricacies of delegate selection this morning:
With the increasingly loud talk of a contested Republican convention, the obscure process of picking who actually gets to be a delegate is about to get underway in states across the country — with an urgency that has not been felt in decades….
Nearly all will be required to vote for a specific candidate on the first ballot, based on the results of the primaries and caucuses in their states. But if no candidate wins enough delegates to clinch the nomination, there will be subsequent rounds of voting. In that scenario, the vast majority of delegates would be free to vote as they please.
The potential for intrigue is enormous. State delegations who vote for one candidate on the first ballot could actually turn out to be sleeper cells for another as the voting proceeds.
Nor are they bound at any point to support the candidate to whom they are pledged on fights over rules, credentials, the platform or the vice presidential nominee. Those kinds of battles can determine whether the convention is an orderly coronation or a street fight, possibly even putting new names in contention.
One of the more interesting aspects of the delegate selection process is that the candidates themselves have relatively little to do with picking the actual delegates, as The Week explained yesterday:
Last Tuesday, Trump won 36.5 percent of the vote in Michigan, earning himself 25 delegates at the national convention. But the identity of those delegates is key. And they're not yet known, because Michigan selects its national convention delegates at a state caucus on April 8 from a pool of at least several hundred Michigan Republicans.
Though those delegates will be bound by national and state rules to support Trump through the first ballot at the convention, their identities might be the difference between a first ballot win and a complete loss — the election of someone else.
It's entirely plausible that a state could seat delegates pledged to support Donald Trump who have open affiliations with other candidates. The attendees at these state caucuses and conventions can elect whomever they want….
The RNC's rules committee has tried to address this by tightening the rules governing the allocation of pledged delegates…[b]ut states still get a lot of latitude. That's why smart (and devious) Republican operatives are secretly working to influence the delegate selection process. They want as many of their own supporters as possible to identify as pledged Trump delegates. That way, those men and women will fall to their (real) default choice if Trump doesn't win a majority of delegates on the first ballot.
Both the Post and The Week focus on Trump for a pretty simple reason – he doesn’t seem to have the relationship and organization needed to ensure that every Trump delegate to the GOP convention is actually a Trump supporter, as The New York Times explains this morning:
Recruiting loyalists to run for delegate slots — often through a series of contests beginning at the precinct and county levels — favors campaigns with strong grass-roots networks and robust national organizations. Mr. Trump has been lacking in both, failing to win in caucus states like Iowa, Kansas and Maine where a ground game is important.
“In the vast majority of the states, you can’t do this on the fly; you have to have laid the groundwork for months,” said Joshua T. Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia. “By all accounts, the Trump campaign is not active in pushing their guys into those delegate slots.”
By contrast, Mr. Cruz, who has done well in caucus states, is seeking to get his supporters elected as delegates who are nominally pledged to Mr. Trump, but who would desert him after the first ballot.
“The Cruz campaign has been organized down to the district and county levels all the way across the country,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who has participated in meetings for the Cruz campaign about delegate selection. “You’re dealing with people who are party activists. They will trump the Trump loyalists in winning delegate slots.”
The article also points to “free agents” who are not bound to any candidate and who could be the deciding factor in a close first vote:
Forty years ago, President Ford was able to wrangle a majority before the first ballot because many delegates came to the convention unbound. This year, because of rule changes, fewer than 10 percent of Republican delegates will be free agents before the first ballot. They include some, but not all, of the 163 delegates Senator Marco Rubio won before quitting the race on Tuesday.
Though Mr. Trump may hope to fish in this pool to close the gap and reach a majority before the first ballot, many of Mr. Rubio’s free agents could prefer Mr. Kasich. Mr. Rubio had told supporters in Ohio to vote strategically for the governor to deny Mr. Trump victory.
Which raises the question: What happens with the Rubio delegates? CBS News describes the situation in an article this morning:
By Thursday, Rubio had amassed 164 delegates by CBS News' count -- which, when the three remaining candidates will be fighting over every single delegate between now and July, is no small figure. (Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also has 6 delegates, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has 3.)
But Rubio can't just magically transfer his delegates to the candidate of his choice by endorsing someone else, should he choose to throw his support to one of his former rivals. In fact, at least on the first ballot at the convention, most of his delegates will still be bound to vote for him.
Delegates for candidates who have withdrawn fall into one of three categories: those still bound to the candidate, those who are now free to support any candidate (or would be if Rubio released them), and those who get allocated to another candidate:
Some states' laws require that delegates earned by a withdrawn candidate remain bound to that candidate at the convention, regardless of whether he or she is still in the race. This is true of Rubio's 7 delegates in Iowa, 14 delegates in Georgia, 8 in Massachusetts, 12 in Oklahoma, 1 in Hawaii, 6 in North Carolina, 16 in Virginia and 9 in Arkansas….
In some states [New Hampshire, Tennessee, Minnesota, Louisiana, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Wyoming, Alabama, Texas, Kansas], the delegates of a candidate who's left the race become unbound and are able to vote for whomever they wish. For a few of those states, this is automatic now that Rubio has exited the race; in others, he needs to formally release them for this to happen. Texas, and Kansas, for example, require Rubio to formally release his delegates before they become unbound….
In a small handful of states where Rubio has picked up delegates, the states' rules allow for those delegates to be reallocated to other candidates ahead of the convention (all in different ways, of course).
In Kentucky, Rubio's 7 now-unbound delegates must meet together with the state's bound delegates to hold a secret ballot through which the unbound delegates will be re-allocated to another candidate.
In Alaska, when a candidate leaves the race his or her delegates are simply proportionally redistributed to the remaining candidates. In the case of this year's caucuses, Cruz earned 12 delegates, Trump earned 11 and Rubio earned 5; Rubio's will be redistributed to Cruz and Trump.
And in Nevada, the withdrawing candidate has three options (in this case, Rubio has 7): the bound delegates can be kept; or those delegates can be released to vote for whichever candidate they like; or at the state convention, the delegates to be proportionally re-allocated to the remaining candidates.
It’s a long way until the GOP convention, which will be held in Cleveland beginning July 18, and it’s possible either Trump or Cruz will amass the needed number of delegates to win on the first ballot. But if that doesn’t happen, who the delegates are could be infinitely more important in determining the nominee than which candidate they are committed to voting for.