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Republicans' New Target: The 'Pre-Convention'

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Republican delegate tangle has people talking excitedly about a contested national convention this summer. Not so fast. Even if no candidate wins the necessary 1,237 delegates by the end of primaries and caucuses on June 7, the six weeks that follow provide another opportunity to settle the matter before the party gathers in Cleveland on July 18. I’ll call this period the “pre-convention.”

Republicans can't have an undecided convention without first passing through a contested pre-convention period. With all the delegates chosen but no candidate having a secure majority, the action will shift from the week-to-week slog from one state primary to the next in search of voters to a collective decision to be made by the delegates: 2,472 party actors, most of them obscure but a handful well known, most of them loyal to the candidate they are supporting but many of them with other interests and preferences.

If no one has the nomination locked up in June, everyone involved -- candidates, delegates and other party actors -- will feel intense pressure to get this done before the convention. The purpose of national conventions today is advertising for the party and its candidate, and that opportunity would be forfeited if the convention was convened without a nominee. The worst case would be day after day of deadlock under the full gaze of the national media with controversies heating up and plenty of chances for those 2,472 delegates (and the hundreds of other Republicans who will be in attendance) to make the party and whomever they eventually settle on look bad.

So the campaigns will scramble to win the allegiance of delegates, both those who are not tethered to a particular candidate and those who are, since bound delegates might become available if the convention decides to let them vote however they want.  

Delegates who are unbound and uncommitted won’t necessarily wait until Cleveland to commit. As some of them declare for a candidate (and are added to the tallies news organizations keep), the delegate counts will change as the convention approaches. A candidate could go over the top during those six weeks. The lead could change.

What happens during the pre-convention will depend partly on how close the front-runner is to 1,237 delegates, and on how big the gap is between him and the second-highest vote-getter. 

Party actors, including delegates, may care which candidate has won the final contests, including some in big states like California, as well as what the national polls are saying.

Even if they haven't publicly committed to a candidate, some party leaders may contact delegates to discuss a course of action, and even push some contenders to step aside in favor of someone who has a chance to wrap up the nomination early.

Most Republican delegates will have been chosen as “bound,” meaning they would be required to vote for a certain candidate on at least the first ballot in Cleveland. A small number will be chosen as “uncommitted,” meaning they could choose to support any candidate before the convention, or change allegiance from one to another.

Another batch of delegates -- anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred -- will have been selected to be delegates for a candidate who has withdrawn. Depending on their state party rules, some will be bound to support their candidate anyway, at least on the first ballot. Others will be free to choose.

Even some of those who are pledged to vote for a candidate who is still running could conceivably be in play. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans in many states separate the selection of the individual delegates from the allocation of how they are supposed to vote on the first ballot for a given candidate.  This means many delegates could be bound to vote for a candidate despite not actually supporting him.

For example, Donald Trump won the Virginia primary on March 1 and was allocated 17 of Virginia’s 49 delegates. Separately, Virginia Republicans are holding a series of party conventions in April and May in each of the state's congressional districts to select the actual delegates. Seventeen of those delegates will be assigned to Trump, and under the tentative rules they will have to vote for Trump on the first ballot in Cleveland. But there’s nothing in the rules to guarantee Trump is the actual preference of those 17 people.

This means that even a candidate who has captured 1,237 delegates by June 7 might not be truly safe. It's unclear if Republicans would be willing to thwart the will of their voters by upending a chosen winner, but if the delegates want to, nothing can stop them. This too is a fight that could start during the pre-convention.

Unfortunately, we have little historical precedent for how this jockeying works in practice. It’s possible that well-organized campaigns will have been able to secure their choices for delegates and that poorly organized campaigns will have had less success. By the pre-convention period, one or more candidates might have a real advantage in the share of their delegates who are truly loyal.

So not only are the rules confusing and subject to interpretation. They're also subject to change. The tentative rules for the convention bind all delegates to vote the way they were allocated on the first ballot, but the convention can change those rules. So we may be in for a convention floor fight about whether to “free” the delegates to vote how they choose. If so, the first rounds of that fight and any other rules fight will take place in the pre-convention period, when the convention Rules Committee is chosen and begins its deliberations. Another possibility: fights in the convention credentials committee about any disputes over who the properly elected delegates might be.

In the old days of brokered conventions, party bosses chose delegates who would do as they were instructed. Today’s delegates have far more leeway to do what they want. So if, for example, Marco Rubio drops out after losing Florida on Tuesday and endorses Cruz, the delegates he has won so far wouldn’t necessarily have to listen to him or anyone else.  And efforts to win commitments from those delegates would hardly wait until the convention.  

However uncharted the period is between the end of the primaries and the beginning of the convention, if no one reaches 1,237 by June 7 then party actors will press hard to get everything resolved before everyone arrives in Cleveland. If they’re successful, the convention won’t appear to have been contested after all. If not? There's a good chance of absolute chaos, with everyone watching.

  1. The delegate selection procedures vary by state. Rules maven Josh Putnam estimates that about 75 percent of delegate selection is separate from delegate allocation.

  2. Nor has anyone been reporting on it so far this year. Before the 2016 cycle, it hasn’t been important since 1976, and the procedures were different back then.

  3. As long as the convention rules allow them to – rules that they have the power to overturn.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net