It’s like something out of an Aaron Sorkin script. After their bitterly divisive primary, the Republican delegates come together to nominate John Kasich on the fourth ballot at a contested convention in Cleveland, despite his having won only his home state of Ohio. Or they choose House Speaker Paul Ryan, despite his not having run in the primaries at all. Balloons descend from the ceiling, celestial choirs sing and everything is right again with the Republican Party, which goes on to beat Hillary Clinton in a landslide in November.
As I said, it’s like something out of a TV show. In other words: probably fiction. It’s not that hard to imagine a contested convention. In fact, with Donald Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates looking tenuous, especially after his loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, it’s a real possibility. And it’s not hard to see how Republicans might think of Kasich or Ryan as good nominees. If Republicans were starting from scratch, both might be pretty good picks, especially from the perspective of the party “establishment” in Washington.
But Republicans won’t be starting from scratch, and the “establishment” won’t pick the party’s nominee. The 2,472 delegates in Cleveland will. And most of them will be chosen at state or local party conventions a long way from Washington. Few will be household names, having quietly attended party gatherings in Fargo, North Dakota, or Cheyenne, Wyoming, for years with little remuneration or recognition. Although the proverbial Acela-riding insiders might dream of Ryan or Kasich, there are indications that the rank-and-file delegates are into Ted Cruz — and they’re the ones who will have votes in Cleveland.
To recap a bit, the Republican presidential voting process is separate from the delegate selection process in most states. In South Carolina, for instance, most delegates are selected through a series of county, congressional district and state conventions. Although those delegates are bound to Trump (who won the state’s primary on Feb. 20) on the first ballot, they could peel off and vote for another candidate after that.1
There are some states where delegates are selected directly on the ballot (as in Maryland, for instance) and others where slates are submitted by the candidates (as in New Hampshire) — these are a fairly small minority. Below, you’ll find a table showing the Republicans’ delegate selection method in all states and territories, according to the Republican Party’s rulebook.
|TIED TO PRES. PREF. VOTE||NOT TIED TO PRES. PREF. VOTE|
|STATE OR TERRITORY||BY CANDIDATES||ON PRIMARY BALLOT||AT STATE OR LOCAL CONVENTIONS||BY STATE OR LOCAL PARTY COMMITTEES||RNC MEMBERS|
|No. Mariana Isl.||6||3|
|Share of total||10%||16%||55%||12%||7%|
Without getting too lost in the details,2 there are five major delegate selection methods:
- Candidates choose their delegates (10 percent of delegates). In some states, candidates name a slate of delegates. These states include California, making it even more important to the Republicans’ delegate math; delegates won in California are likely to remain loyal to their candidates longer than in most places.
- Directly elected (16 percent of delegates). Other delegates, as I mentioned, are chosen directly on the primary ballot. Usually, the ballot indicates which candidate the delegate prefers, and the delegates are bound to that candidate. An important exception is Pennsylvania, where 54 delegates will be elected on the ballot as uncommitted.
In these first two cases, there’s a strong link between the presidential preference vote and delegate selection. The link isn’t perfect — weird things can happen when voters are asked to choose from among a number of delegates they’ve never heard of — but it’s pretty close. However, these two groups combined will represent only 26 percent of all delegates in Cleveland (or 24 percent if Pennsylvania’s uncommitted delegates aren’t included in the tally).
The other delegate selection methods are as follows:
- Selected at state or local conventions (55 percent of delegates). The majority of delegates, as I mentioned, are chosen through a series of state and local conventions or caucuses. This is grass-roots democracy at work, with somewhere between dozens and thousands of Republican activists attending these events.
- Selected by state or local party committees (12 percent of delegates). In a few other cases, however, party insiders are responsible for appointing some delegates. The state executive committee names 14 at-large delegates in Tennessee, for instance, a point of contention because these delegates are thought not to be favorable to Trump even though he won the state.
- Republican National Committee members (7 percent of delegates). Finally, the 168 members of the RNC — three in each state — are automatically chosen as delegates. This used to be an important group because these delegates were uncommitted even on the first ballot in many states, making them equivalent to the Democrats’ “superdelegates.” But this year, Republican rules usually bind them to the statewide winner on the first ballot. Like other delegates, they may be free to choose whom they want later on.
We know that Cruz is likely to do well among delegates chosen through state and local conventions because we’ve seen that demonstrated quite a few times already. This is most obvious in the three states — Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota — where there was no presidential preference vote. Cruz won nine of the 12 delegates chosen at county conventions in Wyoming (Trump won one), and Cruz has gotten six of six picked so far at congressional district conventions in Colorado (more Colorado congressional districts will choose their delegates this week). In North Dakota, delegates are technically unbound, but Cruz got a highly favorable slate of delegates approved at the state convention on Sunday; only one or two delegates of the 25 chosen appear favorably disposed to Trump.
Cruz has also gotten good results at state and local conventions in states that do hold a presidential preference vote. In fact, considering that relatively few states have completed their convention process, it’s remarkable how many examples you can find of Cruz cleaning Trump’s clock: for example, in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota. It’s possible that Trump will improve his delegate-selection efforts in subsequent states, and with his chance of winning the GOP nomination down to 49 percent at prediction markets, he’s become a tempting buy-low opportunity. But in terms of delegate selection, Trump has nowhere to go but up, making it more essential for him to win 1,237 delegates by California or come very close to it.
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We have fewer examples of how Cruz will fare among delegates chosen by party committees, but Tennessee represents an initial success for him. Another good proxy for how state party insiders are leaning is endorsements from state legislators. Cruz has about six times more of those than Trump and more than twice as many as Kasich, according to data collected by Boris Shor and Will Cubbison. Furthermore, Cruz has been fairly popular among state legislators for some time, according to Shor and Cubbison; they’re not merely coming to him out of desperation.
Then there are the 168 RNC delegates. Perhaps they’d be favorably disposed to Ryan or Kasich, but they represent a relatively small share of the delegate pool. And with strong ties to their state parties, they don’t all fit the stereotype of Washington insiders either.
It also helps Cruz that he, like Trump, will have won a fair number of delegates from the first two categories — directly elected delegates and delegates chosen by the candidates. True, these may be only about a quarter of delegates combined, but those are delegates that a candidate like Ryan would have a hard time winning over, meaning that he’d need a supermajority of delegates from the other categories. Also, in some states, delegates are bound based on the primary or caucus results for more than one ballot. So while Cruz could be a viable choice from the second ballot onward, it might not be until the fourth ballot or so that Ryan would really have a shot.
It’s true that a contested convention is uncharted territory in the modern political era, so we can’t be completely sure what the delegates would do. The 2,472 delegates have nearly unlimited authority to rewrite the convention rules, and if most of the them really wanted to see Ryan or Kasich nominated, they could probably find a way to do it. Or, if the voting was a stalemate between Trump and Cruz for many ballots, a true dark horse — maybe someone far more obscure than Ryan or Kasich — could emerge as a compromise. We can’t rule out these outcomes.
But we’re also learning more and more about who those delegates are now that they’re being chosen. They’re not members of the Washington “establishment.” Instead, they’re mostly grass-roots activists, and many of them want Cruz to be their next president.