“Real estate mogul,” the press used to call him. Or “billionaire businessman,” when that wore thin, along with the odd “reality TV show star.” By February, however, the description had morphed into “presidential frontrunner.” And then, an exciting new boilerplate: “presumptive Republican nominee.”
It’s prestigious, sure—but it does bump around the lips a little clumsily. Why can’t we all just agree to drop the “presumptive” and call Donald Trump the GOP nominee? After all, he’s locked down 1,542 delegates, which is a good 200 more votes than needed to meet the majority threshold required to take the nomination.
Yet Trump’s victory at the national convention in Cleveland remains only a presumption—something probably true but not yet absolutely, completely certain. Where does that tiny shred of doubt come from?
Based on current convention rules, drawn up at the last GOP national convention in Tampa in 2012, nearly all of the delegates assigned to Trump are required to vote for him based on their state’s popular vote results. But before a new convention begins, those rules expire, and must be updated and approved anew. That means we don’t yet know for sure what the Cleveland convention rules will be, or how they’ll require delegates to vote.
Who decides these new rules? It’s a two-part process. Just a few days before the convention, the rules committee—which includes two national delegate representatives from each state and territory, totaling 112—will meet to hammer out any additions or subtractions to the Tampa rules to determine how the Cleveland convention will proceed. Once a majority of committee members approve the new draft, it then goes to the convention floor, where it must win support from a majority of the convention delegates.
For Trump, the most important holdover from Tampa will be Rule 16. Pushed through four years ago by supporters of Mitt Romney’s campaign, this rule bound delegates to vote in accordance with the results of their state’s popular primary vote (this was done to protect an incumbent president Romney from grassroots challengers).
If the Cleveland rules committee re-approves the rule with no revisions, Trump’s got nothing to worry about: Those 1,542 delegates bound to vote for him will do so, giving him the nomination. But if the Cleveland rules committee somehow voted to lift that “binding” obligation—and the rest of the convention’s delegates agreed to their changes—Trump’s nomination would be thrown into jeopardy.
Most delegates are longtime Republican activists, and there’s good reason to think a healthy majority of them are not big fans of Trump’s. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson estimates that pro-Trump delegates only make up a quarter of the rules committee; another 30% actively favor Trump’s rival, Ted Cruz, while the rest, Erickson says, are “willing to go in the direction that saves the party destruction.”
If the anti-Trump contingent congeals into a majority within the rules committee, the rules could be changed to let delegates vote for any candidate they choose. Another possibility, says Hugh Hewitt, another conservative commentator, is to require the nominee to win a supermajority of delegates on the first ballot. Trump wouldn’t meet this cutoff. And since hundreds of delegates are bound to vote for him on the first ballot only—after that, they can vote for other candidates—this would almost certainly force Trump into a tight contest with Cruz.
It’s worth noting, right now Cruz is the only person eligible to go up against Trump. And that’s because in addition to Rule 16, the Romney-backing faction of Republicans in Tampa four years ago also passed the infamous Rule 40. This made it so that instead of winning a plurality of delegate votes in five states, as the previous rules had held, candidates at the 2012 convention had to have won a majority of delegates in eight states to appear on the ballot. Aside from Trump, Cruz is the only other candidate to have achieved this, having won a majority of delegates in Texas, Kansas, Maine, Idaho, Utah, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Wyoming.
For anyone else to get on the ballot—as Erickson reports, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race in September, is one of the names being tossed around—the rules committee would need to lower the Rule 40 threshold or scrap the rule entirely.
In the last few decades, as the nomination process has been determined more and more by each state’s popular vote, the nomination has become a mere formality. The purpose of the convention instead has become much more about defining the party and rallying its rank and file around that image. In that sense, a fight for the nomination in Cleveland could further expose the deep divisions among Republicans.
It could also gut the party even more fundamentally. As it is, more than three in five Republicans think that the nominee should be chosen by the popular vote (paywall). Plus, by empowering a large and increasingly estranged base of the party to defy the GOP overlords, Trump now holds hostage a bloc of voters that other Republicans running for other offices this year need to win. Those masses won’t take kindly to the ouster of their newfound cultural and political hero.
So for those 112 delegates on the rules committee, the question in Cleveland this July will be this: Is the Republican party better served by a Trump presidential run, or by the scuttling of it?