Yesterday, the Cleveland Indians played their seventh game of the regular season. On the date Republicans plan to convene their convention on the shores of Lake Erie, the Indians are scheduled to play game #92. Think about that for a second. More than half the long, long baseball season will be history before we finally learn the name of the last candidate standing and, with it, the likely fate of the Republican Party. In an age of instant communication and immediate gratification this is simply too long to wait. It will create a news vacuum and that vacuum will be filled with endless speculation.
To help you survive the months of punditry ahead, I offer this guide to what is important to know about the build-up to the Republican convention and when we will know it. Think of it as a handbook to help you cut through the verbiage and focus on the few things that will actually shape the outcome of the Republican contest. Use it to impress family and friends with how much more you know about the nomination process than some of the people paid to write about it.
- How many delegates will be pledged to Trump? We could eliminate much of the convention speculation if we only knew this figure. And we will know it—on June 7, when California, New Jersey and three other states cast their votes and finally bring down the curtain on the 2016 primary season. At last we will have an answer to the question casting the biggest shadow over speculative mid-April Washington Post columns. There are three possible outcomes: Trump will have enough delegates to win a first ballot victory; Trump will not have enough delegates to win a first ballot victory; and the choice of political junkies everywhere, Trump will have almost enough delegates to win a first ballot victory. If Trump has enough delegates to win the nomination outright, you can stop reading here because the rest of this guide will be moot. At that point, the relevant question will be how establishment Republicans plan to approach an election cycle with Trump as their standard bearer (although there will still be noisy efforts to stop Trump at the convention, these are more likely to be expressions of denial than rational strategic exercises). If Trump does not have enough delegates to win or if he is close but not quite close enough, then the identity of the delegates and the rules of the convention become extremely important. But the point is we will know the answer to this question and we know when we will know the answer, so it’s best not to get caught up in what might happen at the convention until this key point is resolved.
- Who are the delegates pledged to Trump? Delegate selection is taking place now on a state-by-state basis, and it will continue through the spring. The campaigns can have a hand in identifying and promoting sympathetic delegates, but in most states the actual selection is done by the party without the approval of the campaigns. This wouldn’t be an issue if Republicans were going to come together around a consensus nominee, but it can be a huge factor in a year when party leaders and the Cruz campaign think they can deny the nomination to the delegate leader. In other words, if some Trump delegates are party regulars who want to stop him, then Trump will suffer defections on ballots where these individuals are not bound to support him and in the Rules Committee if they are selected to serve on it. As the identities of actual delegates become known, we will be able to determine how much loyalty there will be to Trump at the convention, and this will give us a sense of the likely defection rate should the convention move to multiple ballots. It will not tell us who these delegates might support on a second or third ballot, whether anti-Trump delegates could be convinced to move as a group, or how much horse trading would take place and to what effect. Remember, there will be no brokers at a broken convention, so the most likely result will be chaos. Trump may give away more ambassadorships than there are nations on earth to secure the votes of delegates nominally pledged to him. But once we know the size of the pro-Trump group, which will certainly be different from and smaller than the number of Trump’s pledged delegates, we can gauge how much and what kind of chaos to expect.
- What is the composition of the Rules Committee? Once we know the identities of the delegates and we can determine the loyalty of delegates selected to the Rules Committee, we will know how supportive the convention will be of rule changes backed by interests challenging Trump. The committee, as its name suggests, sets the rules of the convention. Two members are selected from each state delegation, which is one reason why the composition of the delegations is so important, and the chair of the committee is selected by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. You can probably see how this process gives party elites their greatest potential source of leverage in Cleveland. The composition of the committee will not tell us what it will do, but it will give us a pretty clear sense of who will be driving the convention and how likely it is that we will see resistance to the rules on the convention floor. Remember, there are no brokers, so establishment interests have only the ability to craft the rules to tilt the playing field in their direction and may lack the strength to have these rules approved without a fight. Key to the plans of conservatives hoping for a conservative nominee not named Cruz is a suspension of Rule 40b, a remnant of the 2012 convention requiring candidates to win eight states to be eligible to be considered for the nomination. Elimination of this rule would permit John Kasich’s name to be placed in nomination, or the name of someone who didn’t run in the primaries or who suspended his campaign. Of course, Cruz himself would oppose this change if he qualifies under the existing rule, so you can probably see how this can turn ugly. Once we know who’s on the committee we’ll have a pretty good idea how these battles will play out.
And that’s it. You will hear a lot about maneuvering and there will be plenty of intrigue, but the important developments between now and July 18 will be the resolution of these key structural matters: Does Trump have a majority of delegates? How deeply loyal are his delegates? Who gets to write the convention rules? What happens in Cleveland will be shaped by these outcomes, and we will know at predictable times what these outcomes will be. We just have to be patient. Until then, trying to assess how the convention will unfold makes as much sense as determining if the Indians are set up for a playoff appearance in October based on their 4-3 start. Of course, there will be people trying to do that too.