POLITICS
06/09/2016 07:13 pm ET

Republicans Revive The Dizzy Dream Of A Contested Convention

Here we go again.

For a hot minute, it looked like it might happen. Weeks after GOP elites were forced to come to terms with the fact that Andy Serkis' latest motion-capture monster project, Donald Trump, had won their party's nomination, House Speaker Paul Ryan finally bestowed his blessing on the arrangement, and it looked for all the world as if Beltway Republicans might reach the end of their long, dark walkabout with Kübler-Ross' stages of grieving.

That's when Trump, in an entirely predictable reversion to the mean, resumed his long-running racist performance art project, disparaging U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel while simultaneously reminding everybody that he stands accused of massively scamming the benighted attendees of his "Trump University." That sent Republicans plummeting back toward depression, anger, and bargaining. Now, amid all the recriminations and revoked endorsements, an old hope has been revived: the contested convention.

Okay, man, but isn't it getting a little bit late in the day for this? The possibility of a contested convention happening was a remote possibility back when Ted Cruz and John Kasich were supposedly, and ultimately unsuccessfully, teaming up to strategically heist delegates from Trump while the GOP primary was still a going concern. Since then, it had looked like the "Never Trump" movement had settled on the desperate hope of mounting some long-shot independent presidential bid to save the day.

Trump's decision to attempt the character assassination of Judge Curiel scrambled the calculus, however. Earlier this week, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) added new momentum to the notion that a contested convention might be the way out. As the Washington Examiner's Gabby Morrongiello reported:

"Let's face it: meet the old Trump, just like the new Trump. We've got what we've got," Flake told reporters on Capitol Hill. "That's not somebody who can win the White House."

"Where there's no talk of a convention challenge or anything else, this might spur it," he added.

Well, consider it spurred. A day later, conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt called on the Republican National Committee to dump Trump with all deliberate haste. And while Hewitt suggested that an opening overture might be to simply "step up and talk to [Trump] about getting out of the race," he also recommended that convention rule-makers take it upon themselves to plant the seeds of Trump's forceful removal:

“The Republican National Committee can do one thing: they can change the rules to make the first two ballots advisory,” Hewitt said.

He also suggested making the first ballot require a supermajority of votes.

Talk of a convention coup has echoed from there. As Yahoo News' Jon Ward reported, "anti-Trump conservatives ... have begun looking more closely at attempting to persuade delegates at next month’s GOP convention to nominate someone other than Trump." Per Ward:

“There is a rapidly moving train toward the convention to try to obstruct it at the convention. Trump in the last 72 hours has given hope to people who think it’s now possible,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio talk show host and one of Trump’s most resolute critics.

“He’s starting to give everybody hope that he should be stopped at the convention,” Erickson said, though he cautioned that if Trump “cleans up his act then I think that hope will go away.”

One of the central players inside the movement to recruit an independent conservative candidate also said Monday that an anti-Trump group was “actively recruiting and setting a convention strategy.”

Bob Vander Plaats, a supporter and campaign co-chair of former candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, suggested that a convention coup at next month's Republican nominating convention in Cleveland is possible.

"Everything's got to be on the table," said Vander Plaats, acknowledging to NBC News that could mean an effort to unbind the delegates from having to vote for Trump on the convention floor.

So it's established: The dream of a contested convention to save the Republican Party from Trump's toxic embrace has been fully revived and it now beats in the stout hearts of those who couldn't quite work out how to do this the first time the idea of a palace coup was floated. Can they pull it off now? I think all signs point to "nope," but let's consider the prospect, just for funsies.

Right now, according to the rules, Trump has earned the magic number of pledged delegates, and should be properly confirmed on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Had he fallen short of the magic number, it might have opened up the possibility that he might lose the nomination on successive ballots, because the current rules allow for delegates in increasingly larger numbers to become "unbound" from their pledges as voting goes into later and later rounds of balloting. 

But all of these rules are, technically, superseded by a larger rule governing the convention that says that if you can get enough people to agree to do it, the whole convention can become a game of Calvinball, and all the rules can be changed at any time.

The specific change that the who's who of this new coup have fixated upon is one in which the delegates are unbound from their pledges at the very outset of the convention, freeing them to vote for whoever they want as long as they aren't under any legal obligations imposed on them by their state party. This would create a circumstance in which many of the delegates who are required to cast their vote for Trump on the first ballot would be immediately freed from this obligation. 

How could this be brought about? First, a majority of members on the Republican National Committee's Rules Committee would have to agree to unbind the delegates. It's rather uncertain that they'd do this, if only because RNC Chair Reince Priebus has already made it known that anyone in the RNC who can't get on board with Trump should take their leave.

If the Rules Committee could be convinced to allow this to happen, a majority of the convention delegates would also have to agree to this -- and for all we know, there are enough sincere Trump delegates to prevent this rule from being enacted. But even if there were a majority of delegates who'd rather Trump not become the nominee, that doesn't mean they'd necessarily follow through on their hearts' desire and overturn the will of the primary electorate. As Vox's Andrew Prokop notes, there's a reason this scheme is referred to as "the nuclear option" -- if it was triggered, there would be a lot of fallout:

As in any gathering of 2,472 people, there will likely be a spectrum of political opinion — from out-and-out Trump supporters to die-hard #NeverTrumpers and everything in between. So how many of Trump's delegates will truly support him, and how many will be [Trump supporters in name only]? And how many delegates overall will be truly hell-bent on stopping Trump, versus willing to tolerate his nomination?

Just as crucial is the delegates' tolerance for risk and willingness to court controversy. The delegates know full well that these decisions aren't being made in a vacuum, and those with political ambitions could face political consequences back home. 

Beyond this, there's another massive piece of the puzzle missing: If not Trump, then who? What candidate would these newly freed, disaffected delegates swarm behind as an alternative. Speaker Ryan, who depending on who you talk to is either a hapless captive of Trump or has brilliantly checkmated him somehow, is forever bandied about as an acceptable alternative. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's name got floated as a coup beneficiary, a rumor he has endeavored to shoot down. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is said to be lurking in the background. Mitt Romney is probably still in the mix. And we've a plethora of defeated candidates from the primary season and unity-candidates-to-be-named-later that are perhaps waiting in the wings.

Do the anti-Trump forces winnow this field? Can they winnow it? If multiple contenders step forward, will Trump still benefit from the splitting of the delegation's votes? If so, who drops out? And how much patience will the delegates have before they just give up and do what they were sent there to do in the first place?

And to be honest, we are getting ahead of ourselves just posing these questions, because this scheme won't work if the would-be Trump-supplanter is flying into the convention blind. To successfully deny Trump the nomination, some alternative candidate would have to be working at the edges of the game right now. They'd need to be reaching out to members of the Rules Committee to find out if they'd pull the trigger to unbind the delegates. They'd need to be able to assure those people that they won't be going it alone. They'd also need to be delegate hunting in earnest, earning the certainty that they'd have enough votes to actually secure the nomination in a putsch.

They'd also have to do all this outreach without news of these ongoing communications getting leaked to the press, which is no easy feat. The fact that we've not seen a story about some kind of behind-the-scenes skullduggery is probably proof enough that no serious attempt to change the rules and deny Trump the nomination is currently happening. 

Oh, and you know, everyone involved in this heist would probably have to account for the means by which everyone in Cleveland actually gets out alive, because I have this funny feeling that Trump and his supporters would probably not look upon any of this with a sanguine, chilled-out attitude.

In short: Man, I don't know about this. A contested convention at this point is a Herculean lift coming and going. And when you consider the fact that if Trump somehow goes a week or two giving nothing but anesthetized teleprompter speeches, what passion there currently is for preventing his nomination will probably ebb away from all but the most die-hard Never Trumpers. At that point, they'll probably just revive some scheme to run Joe Scarborough or Condoleezza Rice or a Reagan Biography In An American Flag Necktie as some outlier candidate.

So, if you've got money to wager, I wouldn't put a lot of it on the prospect of a contested convention. It's pretty clear that one takeaway here is that it's a far safer bet that any time a candidate has a news cycle like Trump has had, it's going to touch off a frantic round of bedwetting.

Of course, the real lesson here is that maybe somebody should have dealt with the fact that Trump was a racist cretin many, many months ago, when that became obvious. Alas!

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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