Republican commentators have dismissed concerns over a contested convention with a hand-waving reference to “winner-take-all” primaries later in the calendar. Like so much of the rest of Republican reasoning, that confidence is built on a set of factual assumptions not born out in the world around us.
These are the reasons we can anticipate a contest at the convention to select the nominee.
1) Few delegates will be assigned in a true, statewide, winner-take-all contest.
Only eight states, delivering less than 400 of the necessary 1247 delegates needed for a majority, will be awarded in a winner-take-all fashion. One of them, Ohio, is a likely win for Kasich who is otherwise a delegate laggard. He is unlikely to drop out before that March 15th primary.
2) The system is only designed to select a winner if one candidate can consistently top 50%.
Most of the states that commentators describe as “winner-take-all” are in fact proportional unless one candidate tops 50%. That list of about 12 states includes some big ones, like Texas (155) and New York (95). Something remarkable and unpredictable would have to happen in the five weeks or so for someone to reach 50% just about anywhere.
3) Trump has a hard ceiling somewhere in the mid-thirties. So does every other GOP candidate.
Pollsters have made clear that Trump’s support dries up beyond about a third of GOP voters in almost every state. What they haven’t mentioned is that practically every other candidate experiences a similar, fairly low ceiling.
Cruz may actually top out a bit lower than Trump. Pollsters point to voters’ generally favorable image of Rubio. However, that only extends to their view of him as a person, not as a candidate.
Once negative campaigning focuses in on Rubio, his embrace of immigration reform will translate into a hard cap. That cap is made worse by Rubio’s general weakness as a candidate. He may be less annoying than Cruz and less revolting than Trump, but he’s not very good at this. We have a deeply divided Republican primary electorate, creating strong incentives to stay in the race for candidates in the top four or five.
4) A vast majority of delegates are ‘soft-pledged,’ meaning they shed their attachment to their assigned candidate after a failed first ballot.
Here’s where the Republican ‘Red Wedding Scenario’ gets its energy. Most GOP delegates are only locked into their selection if there is a clear winner. Soft-committed delegates are basically only committed if the convention doesn’t matter. After a first failed ballot, serious, involved, committed members of the Republican Party – the kind of people who become convention delegates – are set free from the yahoos who voted in the primaries. They get to pick the winner.
In 100 out of 100 potential runs of that scenario, Donald Trump fails to win the nomination. In fact, there is reason to expect that the nominee would be someone who wasn’t even a candidate in the primaries.
5) There are no brokers.
Note the vital difference between a ‘contested’ and a ‘brokered’ convention. Decades ago, before primaries played such a prominent role, powerful interests in the parties negotiated the convention outcome. This was a vital service, as 2500 people who don’t know each other will often have difficulty organizing themselves toward a sensible outcome without the help of some leadership. In a scenario like we face this year, a dozen or so leading figures should be able to help mediate an outcome prior to the convention, at least limiting the convention delegates to two or three reasonably options.
There are no authoritative figures inside the party with the credibility and influence it takes to bring potential rivals together. It will be an unpredictable, bare-knuckles fight. There is a chance that a contest on the convention floor could extend beyond the convention, with more than one claimant insisting that he was the winner in a disputed outcome that lands in the courts.
6) And a note about Rule 40.
Some have pointed out that Rule 40 would bar consideration of any potential nominee who failed to win a majority of the delegates in at least 8 states. Rule 40 doesn’t matter because the party gets to make the rules more or less on the fly, within the constraints of what is politically possible. If primary results dictate that Rule 40 becomes a problem, then the party will simply change it at the start of the convention.
The real difficulty here is that we have no political structure in place to allow the Republican Party to select its nominee in a convention. Over the past seventy years or so our conventions have evolved from a real political process to a pep rally focused on marketing a nominee who, for all intents and purposes, was selected before anyone cast a primary ballot.
Forcing the convention to perform the complex task of selecting the party’s nominee for the White House is like taking sailboat down a Class 5 rapid. In some ways, this kind of catastrophic institutional challenge might be just the medicine we need. Maybe we will recognize the cost of building an entire political platform on fantasies. Perhaps out of the wreckage of Cleveland we can build something more credible. Evolutionary forces have a way of imposing discipline when we fail to do it ourselves.
From FrontloadingHQ: Map of Republican delegate allocation
From Green Papers: Detailed Republican allocation rules by state
From RealClearPolitics: A delegate allocation simulator. This tool misses the Congressional District breakdowns in some states and glosses over some other subtleties, but it is generally helpful.