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A Contested Convention?

Contested Convention Favors Ted Cruz
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Why a Contested Convention Favors Cruz

By Eliana Johnson    — March 23, 2016

Meet Curly Haugland, former chairman of the North Dakota Republican party and current Republican national committeeman. Haugland is one of just 112 delegates who will arrive unbound to this summer’s Republican convention in Cleveland, free to cast a vote for any candidate he chooses on a first ballot because North Dakota does not hold a primary or caucus. That makes him a particularly valuable asset to the still-dueling presidential campaigns.

Haugland, a Bismarck businessman and a member of the powerful RNC committee that will set the rules governing this year’s convention, says voters may be in for a rude awakening when they learn that the votes cast by delegates on the floor of the convention — rather than those cast in primaries and caucuses — actually determine the Republican nominee. “The results on Fox are just a participation ribbon,” he says. That’s true: Regardless of who wins each state’s nominating contest, a candidate does not become the party’s standard-bearer until he receives a majority of the delegate vote on the convention floor.

The behind-the-scenes efforts by presidential candidates to win the allegiance of delegates such as Haugland are now attracting as much press coverage as the campaign itself. But those privy to the internal workings of the RNC and the delegate-selection process — many of whom agreed to speak on background to preserve their relationships with the candidates — say that the task of wooing individual delegates is probably too complex for an active presidential campaign to successfully manage, and that it’s unlikely to matter much. That’s because the delegates, who are elected through processes dictated by state-party bureaucracies, are themselves likely to be long-time Republican insiders more partial to Cruz than Trump.

So if the race comes down to a fight on the convention floor, it’s almost certain to become clear that there are, in fact, benefits to being a party insider, relatively speaking. And it may be the richest irony in a cycle full of them that Cruz, whose feud with the party establishment is the stuff of legend, finds himself in the best position to reap those benefits if he can hold off Trump until July.

Haugland has been researching the RNC’s nominee-selection process for five years now. He is in the middle of writing a book intended to serve as a guide for the 2,472 Republican delegates who will cast ballots in Cleveland, which he aims to publish 45 days before the convention. And though he has not endorsed a candidate himself, he says Trump is unlikely to win if the convention requires more than one ballot.

He points to Arizona as an example. Trump won the state’s primary on Tuesday evening, but regardless of what any campaign does, the majority of Arizona’s 58 delegates, who are unbound after the first ballot, are likely to defect to Cruz on subsequent votes. “Voters in the primaries are not representative of the people who are gonna’ be sittin’ in the chairs in Cleveland,” he says. “The convention delegates from Arizona are going to be very conservative people, I guarantee ya’.”

Then, too, there are states such as New Hampshire, Georgia, and Ohio, which have open primaries that allow Trump-leaning Democrats and independents to cast ballots, but where delegates are elected through processes set up by state Republican parties who are by definition, well, Republicans.

That doesn’t mean that any of the candidates have given up on courting delegates: Each remaining campaign has launched an organized effort to woo as many of them as possible. The consensus among party insiders is that Cruz’s operation is the strongest. But there is also broad agreement that it may not be sophisticated enough to make much difference.

“I believe they are making the most spirited effort and kind of get the joke on what to do,” says one GOP insider. “What worries me about the effort is that they have so under-performed in the states that were supposed to be the Cruz strength that the whole effort seems like more hype than deliverance at this point.” Says a former Republican national committeeman: “They talk a big, big game. But they’re mostly benefiting from the fact that the insiders, the establishment group in these states, are going to be the ones that know how to work this thing.”

Indeed, a process so steeped in minutiae rewards those insiders who know it inside and out. The vast majority of GOP delegates are selected through state-specific and often dizzyingly complex procedures, some of which unfold over the course of several months. In Georgia and Virginia, for example, delegates to precinct and county conventions elect delegates to the state convention, where the state’s delegation to the national convention is ultimately chosen.

And that’s not all: After a state’s delegation is chosen, the delegates then meet to determine whom among them to elect to each of the RNC’s four committees, some of which will make potentially critical decisions this summer. (Two members of each delegation are elected to each of the four committees, and each delegation has a chairman, so the smallest states and territories such as the Northern Mariana Islands are allotted nine delegates.) The RNC’s credentials committee will rule on which delegates are actually seated on the convention floor (their legitimacy can be challenged), and Haugland’s rules committee will vote on the rules governing the convention, including the standards a candidate must meet to be officially nominated. In a perfect world, the campaigns would be working to stack these committees in their favor.

So yes, there are a few complexities for the campaigns to grapple with. “It’s a really, really, really difficult process,” says another GOP insider. “It was straining on [former Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney four years ago to get into all those state conventions when he was the obvious nominee by the time most of the conventions took place, so I think it’s even more of a challenge in this particular environment.” Even Romney, who had the nomination well in hand when he arrived at the convention in Tampa, Fla., in 2012, saw unexpected delegate defections. (22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates cast their ballots for Ron Paul, who finished third in the state.)

Since a second ballot favors Cruz, it is Donald Trump who has ground to make up if he can’t win a majority of delegates on the campaign trail. And his allies are sounding justifiably overwhelmed by an overwhelming process. “This is not difficult to figure out in any one state,” Ed Brookover, a former RNC field director now working on Trump’s delegate strategy told the Wall Street Journal. “It only sort of begins to get complicated when you’re talking about 56 different places.” (Brookover refers to “56 different places” rather than “50 different states” because there are six territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, which will also send delegates to the convention.)

There is perhaps no better example of Trump’s potential weakness on the floor in Cleveland, and of Cruz’s strength, than South Carolina. Trump won every single one of the 50 delegates up for grabs in the state’s February 20 primary, which was open. But to serve as a delegate from South Carolina, one has to have been a delegate to the 2015 state convention, held before Trump even announced his candidacy. These are establishment people. “Whoever is chosen for national delegate will have allegiance to the party establishment, and the party establishment is never going to be fond of Donald Trump,” a South Carolina GOP insider told Bloomberg’s Sasha Issenberg.

As Trump continues to expand his lead over Cruz in the delegate count, “the establishment” must look more appealing than ever to Texas’s junior senator.

Source: Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of National Review.