In a year of political firsts, local and national Republicans are now quietly preparing for something few have ever seen:
A national political convention that actually matters.
They’ve been to other conventions, in other years. They’ve worn the silly hats. They’ve partied. They’ve heard boring speeches and cast no-drama votes for already-known nominees.
This year, though, stunned by the ascendance of businessman Donald Trump, some GOP elders are proposing something quite different — a convention that allows nearly 2,500 delegates to cast free, unfettered votes for a presidential candidate.
A so-called “open” convention, they think, is the only way to stop Trump from heading the ticket in November.
It would be historic, exciting — and chaotic. “It’s not going to be pretty,” said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University.
Some GOP leaders think the danger of a Trump candidacy is worth the risk of a unique, messy gathering in Cleveland.
“It may be the only real remaining route,” U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, told The Hill newspaper last week. “If that is the case, then, you know, let’s move boldly into it.”
But other Republicans say disregarding votes cast in primaries and caucuses would infuriate supporters of the front-runner, and permanently rip the party apart.
Trump doesn’t like the idea at all. An open convention would have to nominate the front-runner, he said last week, or “I think you would have riots.”
Open nominating conventions were once common in American politics.
Both parties chose convention delegates quietly, often turning to office-holders and power brokers. The delegates would then attend a national convention, exercising free judgment to pick a presidential nominee.
If no presidential candidate achieved a simple majority, another vote would be taken. Alliances would shift and promises would be made (that’s why open conventions are sometimes called “brokered” conventions). Candidate “whips” would enforce voting discipline on the floor, sometimes threatening physical violence.
The process would continue until one candidate — sometimes the front-runner, sometimes an unknown “dark horse” — obtained a clear majority of votes.
Such a process can be democratic, but perilous. Anyone who has ever served on a six-member bake-sale committee knows how messy disagreements can be. Put 1,000 or 2,000 political activists in a room and calamity can result.
So beginning in the early 1970s, parties began holding more preference primaries, requiring delegates to reflect public votes at their conventions. Binding primaries had the added benefit of giving regular party members a voice in picking a nominee.
But deprived of decision-making power, conventions soon turned into four-day pageants. It’s been four decades since Republicans opened a convention without knowing in advance who their nominee would be.
At the 1976 convention in Kansas City, both then-President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan lacked the pledged delegates to win an immediate victory. Ford had slightly more delegates, though, and after a series of maneuvers he collected enough uncommitted votes for a first-ballot nomination.
History will get another chance at an open convention if Trump fails to lock in 1,237 delegate votes, a majority, by the start of the GOP convention in July.
Bound or not
Modern GOP rules require most delegates to reflect their state’s caucus or primary results on the first roll call for the nomination. In Missouri, for example, unofficial primary results show 37 delegates must vote for Trump on the first ballot, while 15 must vote for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
After that, they’re free to vote for someone else. That’s where alternatives to Trump would surface.
There will be 24 Kansas delegates for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, nine for Trump, six for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and one for Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. The Kansas rules are more restrictive than Missouri’s: delegates must vote that way on every ballot until released by their candidates.
Crucially, though, pledged delegates in both states, and indeed the entire convention, can cast independent votes on other matters — rules, credentials, even the second spot on the ticket.
Rules votes are likely in Cleveland. Trump’s opponents may offer a rule change to allow additional names to be placed before the convention, for example. Another rule change might release delegates from their pledges.
If that happens, Trump delegates are free to vote their conscience, not what Trump wants. That means Trump, or any candidate, could lose the nomination on procedural matters before their names ever reach the floor.
That’s why all the candidates are now frantically looking to enlist loyalists as delegates — people who will vote as directed on all matters before the convention, not just the nomination.
“Who the delegates are, as individual persons, becomes vital,” said Clay Barker, director of the Kansas GOP. “Each candidate will need a distinct plan.”
By most accounts, Trump is behind his rivals in identifying loyal delegates in most states. But he and other candidates are now assembling delegate and convention teams to help pick committed representatives for the convention.
Republicans in Kansas and Missouri will pick most of their actual delegates later this spring. There could be major fighting over those spots if an open convention appears likely.
Chaos or creation
While loyalty will be an important character trait for delegates at an open convention, courage and intelligence will also count.
If the nomination fight moves beyond a first ballot, there will be fierce pressure on delegates to stick with their first-ballot pledges — or, on the other hand, to change their votes. Trump supporters are expected to be livid if they sense an attempt to snatch the nomination away.
And the whole world will be watching.
“It would make Middle East peace negotiations look orderly,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka.
At the same time, many of the delegates may be unaccustomed to such intense persuasion. There will be confusion and anger.
When it’s over, uniting a party shattered by an open convention would be extraordinarily difficult — and important. The eventual GOP nominee faces a tough challenge in the best circumstances, but a divided party probably dooms the party’s chances in November before the convention adjourns.
“A contested convention is a death wish for the GOP against Hillary (Clinton) in 2016,” said Jim Jonas, a political consultant based in Denver.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa, said many Trump supporters would believe they’d been robbed, but “the nominee needs the people he just defeated, or it doesn’t work.”
That prospect has convinced many Republicans, even those opposed to Trump, that an open convention might be a mistake. Better to accept Trump and lose, they say, than to have a convention fight, destroy the party — and still lose in November.
But others say an open convention would attract lots of eyeballs to the TV set this summer. That could energize voters, they say, and increase the GOP’s chances in November.
“Can you imagine the ratings for just the coverage of the convention rules committee?” Jonas said. “It would approach the Super Bowl.”
Will it happen?
An open political convention has been a dream of political scientists, reporters and activists for decades. They long for a gathering where decisions are more crucial than who gets a prime-time speaking slot.
There’s an outside chance Democrats would have to open their convention, in Philadelphia in July. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont trails Clinton in most delegate counts, but a strong showing in the last days of the primary season could tighten the race enough for a second ballot.
At the same time, though, Democrats allocate their delegates by strict proportion, making it harder for a trailing candidate to catch up. Because there are only two candidates, the odds of either campaign failing to reach a majority of delegates are reduced.
And unlike Republicans, Democrats have “superdelegates” — unpledged party leaders who can push a candidate over the top if needed. All three factors make an open Democratic convention a remote possibility at best.
Indeed, many outsiders say an open Republican convention is also highly unlikely. If Trump is close to a majority of delegates before the convention, they believe, the party will ensure his nomination to avoid the spectacle of a contested convention.
By most calculations, Trump needs between 52 percent and 55 percent of outstanding delegates to reach 1,237 and avoid an open convention all together. He will have to perform better than he has to date, but not significantly so.
Cruz has barely an outside chance to reach the majority before the convention. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has no mathematical chance to win the nomination before it starts.
John Hancock, the chairman of the Missouri Republican party, and Clay Barker, director of the Kansas GOP, think an open convention remains a longshot at best. Goldford said too many people were “hyperventilating” over the possibility.
If the convention is open, though....
“It’s trite,” said Ken Warren of St. Louis University, “but it’s going to be a bloodbath.”