As Cleveland Approaches, Uncertainty Abounds

How do you hold a national convention when you are about to nominate someone who is running a product placement scam rather than actually running for president? We’re about to find out.

During these final days before Republicans (or at least those Republicans willing to be seen in public with Donald Trump) gather in Cleveland, the most noteworthy thing about the upcoming convention is how little we know about what is going to happen. Like everything involving the Trump campaign, from the outside things look normal. A stage is being constructed at the Quicken Loans Arena. Balloons are being inflated. But when you look closely the details don’t add up. Conventions are scripted affairs, often down to the minute. One small lapse in the script—just one minute where an iconic actor ad libs with a chair—can undermine the crafted image of party unity that typically drives four days of positive coverage, culminating in a polling bounce for the newly minted nominee. This year, Republicans appear to be heading to Cleveland without a script. And that’s dangerous.

It’s ten days before the convention and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know who will be attending. We don’t know who will be speaking. We’re not even entirely certain who will be nominated.

Elected Republicans are finding every reason imaginable why they can’t be there. Ask a vulnerable incumbent Republican senator about attending and you’re likely to hear that they’re way too focused on running for re-election to take a few hours out of their busy schedule to attend. Or maybe they have too much yard work to do, or longstanding dinner plans. Former Republican presidents are avoiding it. Former Republican presidential nominees are avoiding it. Even the governor of Ohio isn’t sure he’ll attend a convention in his home state. His home state! Ordinarily, this would be a priceless opportunity to showcase his leadership to the country.

Lots of no-shows limit the number of available speakers, forcing Trump to fill the agenda with four days of unconventional programming. Four years ago, Mitt Romney had his choice of everyone in the Republican constellation and packed his schedule with prominent political speakers. This year, Trump is planning to rely on sports figures, business leaders and his family, and has spoken of programming a “winners night”—but the details remain fuzzy. Trump had floated names like Tom Brady, Mike Ditka and Mike Tyson as headline speakers, but apparently they all declined the invitation, and he did not release a list of speakers as promised on Wednesday, which probably means his family will be getting a lot of air time. Like the rest of Trump’s campaign, there’s little reason to believe the convention will be about anything but him.

That is if he can get past the rebellion that’s brewing to deny him the nomination. There are at least two organized efforts to prevent Trump from being nominated on the first ballot. The first is a widely publicized attempt to change the nominating rules to unbind delegates from commitments to vote for Trump. This proposal is highly unlikely to be approved by the convention’s Rules Committee when it meets next week because the committee is filled with Trump loyalists, but it could potentially clear the 25% threshold (28 of 112 members) necessary for a “minority report” that would require a floor vote. And that’s where things could get interesting, because a large chunk of Trump delegates do not personally support him, the result of Trump being out-hustled in the delegate selection process by other candidates. The second, less publicized coup attempt involves an effort to convince delegates to abstain during the roll call vote in order to deny Trump the 1,237 votes he needs to be nominated.

It should be fairly evident that these efforts face long odds, but the element of uncertainty they introduce to the proceedings is noteworthy. An unsuccessful roll call vote on the rule change would nonetheless roil the waters and heighten tensions between the pro-Trump and #NeverTrump factions. An effort to get delegates to abstain in large numbers risks being ruled out of order by the convention chair, but such a ruling—to say nothing of the attempt itself—is unlikely to be received calmly. Far from a show of unity, the convention is setting up one last confrontation between Trump supporters and conservatives who don’t want to give the nomination to someone who represents the party’s reactionary wing.

And that promises to make the Republican convention unlike the overproduced infomercials we have come to expect in an age when parties settle their nomination differences during the primaries. Donald Trump’s model for his campaign may be reality TV, but with the uncertainty surrounding what’s going to happen in Cleveland it’s not at all improbable that he will find himself in the role of participant rather than host.