Can Republicans really change the rules in Cleveland to block Trump’s nomination?

Mitt Romney with his family as he accepts the nomination at the Republican National Convention in 2012. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In a story titled “Five Ways the Republican Convention Could Still Be Contentious,” Jeremy Peters of the New York Times reported Sunday that at least some Republicans “hostile” to Donald Trump continue to daydream about derailing his nomination at the last minute in Cleveland. How? By changing the rules that govern the party’s nominating process.

Peters went on to outline two possible scenarios. The first, which he labeled the “nuclear option,” could only be “described anonymously” by a rules expert. “It is tantalizing,” Peters explained, “because it is so simple”:

Mr. Trump could be stopped with just a single-word change requiring the nominee to receive a supermajority of votes at the convention rather than the majority currently required. Mr. Trump, after all, had floated changing majority to plurality when it was not clear he would win the 1,237 delegates he needed.

The second option, according to Peters, will actually be proposed at the convention by a fellow named Curly Haugland.

(In case you missed it, be sure to check out this profile of Haugland, a “stubborn 69-year-old pool-supply magnate” who has become “North Dakota’s top Republican gadfly, its rule-mongering crank, its official state pain in the ass.”)

The existing rules require a candidate to win a majority of delegates in at least eight states or territories to be formally entered into nomination; currently, only Trump and Ted Cruz qualify. But Haugland wants to lower that bar so that any candidate who wona single delegate in the primaries could get in on the action. This, in turn, would open the door for Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and others to be nominated — all on the theory that “more names in nomination mean fewer votes for Mr. Trump, and the remote possibility that he could be denied the majority he needs to prevent a second ballot,” as Peters puts it.

These are both intriguing hypotheticals — especially for political reporters (like us here at Unconventional) who are desperate for fireworks in Cleveland. But is any of this stuff possible? Can Republicans really change the rules in Cleveland to block Trump’s nomination?

The short answer is yes, they can — but the incentives not to are even stronger than anyone seems to be acknowledging.

Here’s how a rule change would happen. Every delegation going to Cleveland — all 56 of them, or one from each state, U.S. territory and Washington, D.C. — will elect a man and a woman from its ranks to serve on the convention’s Rules Committee. That’s 112 people in all. A few days before the convention begins, the Rules Committee will meet in Cleveland to decide how the gathering will operate. If the majority of the committee agrees on a rule change — like the ones floated above — it will be folded into a comprehensive 2016 rules package and presented to all 2,472 national delegates for approval. For the new rule to go into effect, a majority of those delegates will have to vote yes as well. Then the convention can begin.

Controversial rule proposals have provoked intraparty warfare at past conventions — but they have rarely determined the nomination itself.

At the Democrats’ 1932 convention in Chicago, forces loyal to Franklin D. Roosevelt fought to replace the party’s longstanding two-thirds policy with majority rule; back then, a candidate had to win over a supermajority of delegates to clinch the nomination, and Roosevelt was still dozens of delegates short. The proposal failed, but FDR won the nomination anyway.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy, who trailed incumbent President Jimmy Carter by hundreds of delegates when the primaries ended, was nonetheless convinced that a decisive number of Carter’s pledged delegates secretly supported him. So he swept into the convention in New York City agitating for a rule change that would liberate the delegates from their commitments to the candidates and allow them to vote their conscience. “It was a brutal political fistfight,” according to Harold Ickes, who helped shape Kennedy’s convention strategy and later became Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. The rule change never passed, and Carter clinched the nomination on the first ballot.

And who can forget that in 2012, a Rules Committee seeking to protect the pageantry of Mitt Romney’s coronation invented the eight-state requirement that Curly Haugland now wants to scrap — official name: Rule 40(b) — in order to block libertarian favorite Ron Paul from claiming the coveted speaking slot he’d earned by qualifying as a formally nominated candidate under the party’s previous set of rules?

All of which is to say: A rule change is possible — in theory.

It is not, however, probable.

Beltway types tend to explain why the GOP won’t block Trump with a rule change in Cleveland by declaring that “the establishment” is loath to “risk backlash” by “denying the will of the people.” This is accurate enough. Back when Cruz and Kasich were still competing with Trump, nearly two-thirds of Republicans told pollsters that the candidate with the most votes should win the nomination; now that Cruz and Kasich have signaled their acquiescence by exiting the race, that number is probably even higher. Party bosses would be tarred and feathered if they intervened.

But this explanation incorrectly assumes that some sort of Trump-hating GOP elite will secretly be pulling the Rules Committee’s strings. Precisely the opposite is true. Consider who will actually serve on the Rules Committee: one man and one woman elected by and from each delegation. Then consider the sort of people who will (mostly) make up these delegations: delegates loyal to the candidate who won their state (usually Trump; sometimes Cruz) or delegates loyal to the candidate who finagled to get them elected at their state’s GOP convention (usually Cruz). As one former Rules Committeeman recently told Unconventional, “The Rules Committee is going to be 80 percent Trump and Cruz folks.”

This isn’t the elite; it’s the anti-elite. So neither Team Trump nor Team Cruz will be particularly incentivized to cater to the establishment by rewriting the rules in a way that would make it easier for a Jeb Bush or John Kasich to snatch the nomination. Trump supporters will bitterly oppose any proposed changes for obvious reasons. Likewise, Cruz fans will be disinclined to give the “Washington cartel” what it wants.

In a recent conversation with Unconventional, Cruz’s convention manager, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, explained that Cruz’s delegates are more concerned with protecting the GOP platform than blocking Trump’s nomination.

“You seem to be inherently casting this as Cruz people versus Trump people,” Cuccinelli snapped when we asked if Cruz delegates would be battling it out with Trump delegates on the Rules Committee. “But when it comes to something like the rules, this is very much the establishment versus the grassroots, and I think you would find an awful lot of overlap between Cruz and Trump delegates in that regard.”

Cuccinelli went on to suggest that Cruz and Trump delegates are likely to band together to oppose the sort of last-minute establishment meddling — he called it “oppression” — that produced Rule 40(b) last time around.

“It infuriated a lot of us, myself included,” he recalled.

In fact, the only rule change that Cuccinelli mentioned is a rule that outlaws rule changes.

“One example [that the Cruz delegates might fight for] would be to forbid the RNC from amending the rules in between conventions,” he said.

Recent reports have hinted that Cruz & Co. might pursue other rule changes at the convention, but the goal would be to pave the way for the Texas senator to run again in 2020 — not torpedo Trump in Cleveland.

“We are not trying to undo the presumptive nomination of Donald Trump,” Cuccinelli told Unconventional. “Period. End of discussion.”

Without the cooperation of the Cruz delegates and the Trump delegates (who together will dominate the Rules Committee), any remaining establishment types will be unable to cobble together enough votes for a new, anti-Trump rule — either on the committee or the convention floor.

Our condolences to Curly.

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