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The Republican Delegate Machinations Begin

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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According to Time, Donald Trump's  about-face on his pledge to support the Republican nominee is causing him some heartburn in South Carolina:

The Palmetto State was one of several that required candidates to pledge their loyalty to the party’s eventual nominee in order to secure a slot on the primary ballot. Though Trump won all of the state’s delegates in the Feb. 20 primary, anti-Trump forces are plotting to contest their binding to Trump because of his reversal on the pledge Tuesday.

Oops! 

It's too early to say whether anything will come of this particular flap, but once the Republican National Convention is gaveled into session, 1,237 delegates -- a majority -- with the convention chairman on their side can do pretty much anything they want. They can change the rules, unbinding the delegates. They can unseat some delegates and fill those slots with an alternate slate.

(Even before the convention begins, the Republican National Committee will hand over responsibilities to committees of delegates, who will take a first cut at any rules or credentials controversies. They can be overruled by the convention as a whole, but the convention may also choose to defer to their judgement.)

That's always been true, but there hasn't been any uncertainty on the Republican side since 1976, so the loyalty of the delegates to the nominee didn't really matter. That will still almost certainly be the case if Trump sweeps the remaining states. But otherwise, everything may be up for grabs.

Once the convention votes, there’s no one to appeal to. As long as the convention is in session, the convention is the (formal) party. Whatever it decides is final. Don’t expect the courts to intervene, either; courts do not interfere with the internal workings of political parties.

We don’t know whether any candidate will have a working majority at the convention. We do know, however, that because Republicans in many states separate delegate allocation from delegate selection, the actual people picked may not support the delegate they are required to vote for, at least on the first ballot. However, they are not required to support that candidate’s position in any rules or credentials fights.

That means we need to think about two sets of numbers: Delegates who are bound (or unbound but committed) to a candidate, and delegates who are loyal to a candidate. Those categories will overlap, but they’re not at all the same. We may have delegates bound to Trump but loyal to Ted Cruz, delegates bound to Cruz but loyal to no candidate, or any other combination.

Bound delegates, along with unbound but committed ones, will give us our best estimate of the first ballot for the nomination.

But loyal delegate counts -- and most delegates haven’t been chosen yet, so it’s too early to even guess what the final totals will be -- are the best estimates of how the voting will go on everything else. And credentials and rules votes come before the candidate ballot.

Also, loyalty only stretches so far. Suppose Cruz is willing to win ugly, by throwing out elected Trump delegates on technicalities. It’s possible that the Texas senator may have 1,237 delegates willing to vote for him for the nomination – but also that a decisive number aren’t willing to go that far for him. Nor do delegates who were loyal to Cruz or Trump when chosen in the spring need to stay loyal at the convention in July.

Messy for sure and potentially even worse than that. Which is one more reason that Republicans should do everything they can to settle the nomination during the pre-convention period.

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:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net