Playing by the rules.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trump Could Wrap It Up Before the Convention

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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J. Randolph Evans, an expert on Republican nominating rules, is the kind of person who in past years would toil in obscurity and rarely see the light of day, much less the front of a camera.

These days, as a member of the party’s nominating committee, he is much in demand as Republicans wrestle with the prospect of a contested convention and consider ways to thwart Donald Trump. Evans already had helped ensure that the primaries started in February instead of January and that the convention was held earlier in hopes of smoothing the process. So much for that.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

Now he says that all the talk of changing the rules is beside the point. That's not because the Republicans are inclined to be more transparent, but because it will be too late.

Evans dropped a bomb on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" last week, saying that the conventional wisdom about a disputed Republican convention is dead wrong. He says 1,100 is the new 1,237. In other words, Donald Trump only would need to get to that lower number of delegates to clinch the nomination. That's because once he reaches that threshold -- and he's almost certain to do so -- there will be a stampede by unbound delegates to give him the remaining support he needs before the convention is gaveled to order in July. At that point, the desire of insiders in the party to remain inside takes over.

I spoke to Evans as he was attending a Republican National Committee meeting -- the last before the convention -- in Hollywood, Florida, this week. He said his number is gaining ground among the party movers and shakers who determine the procedures for bestowing the nomination.

Evans came to this conclusion thanks to a computer model that is based on election data from the final months of presidential primaries since 1976. “Once you have 80 percent of the delegates, the idea that the 20 percent will deprive the 80 percent is not viable,” Evans said. “Historically, insiders want to remain insiders and the bandwagon effect always takes over.” You don’t have to fall in love to fall in line.  If you doubt that, just ask Governor Chris Christie.

And Evans isn’t just a random delegate spouting off. In addition to his role on the rules committee, he serves as a national committeeman, on the debate committee and as chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association.  And he comes bearing algorithms.

He says that Trump could reach the unstoppable 1,100 number in next Tuesday’s primaries. Before that delegate-rich night, he could be close to 1,000, if you count delegates ripe for the picking from Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and perhaps some of the 171 delegates Marco Rubio earned in states such as Louisiana and Oklahoma (whether or not he willingly lets them go).

Trump wouldn't even have to sweep the night to reach 1,100, just do barely as well as expected. That's when Evans’s deluge would begin. “Insiders love a winner," he told me. "Wanting to be on the winning team will take over.”

You don’t have to be a geek with computer models and numbers to see that Evans's theory makes sense: Delegates are human, and humans behave in predictable ways. They want to get something for their support and a delegate is a depreciating asset who gets less and less for his commitment the less it is needed. No one wants to be the last on board.

Evans said that in the non-smoke-filled rooms where the big decisions are made there’s an acknowledgement that Trump is likely to hit the “real number” he needs to wrap it up earlier than he would have gotten to 1,237. So why embark on a change to the rules that might bring about the “rough July” Trump is predicting?

For his part, Trump may be trashing the party on the stump, but he’s behaving backstage like someone who knows he will have all the delegates he needs to deter the party from trying to block him. He sent his new, experienced team of delegate wranglers to make nice with the poobahs in Florida (they will all gather Thursday night). With Ted Cruz increasingly flailing and the 1,100 number floating around, watch for Trump to stop bad-mouthing the party soon. As Henry Barbour, son of the legendary former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, put it: "When you want to take a girl to the prom, you don’t tell her the week before she’s ugly.” 

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:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net