How a Contested Republican Convention Could Go Down
We talked to two top election experts to predict how a brokered GOP convention could not only unfold, but explode.
1880 Contested Republican National Convention. Image: Wikimedia
*Note: The basis for our reported science fiction story 'Contested Convention' are found in the interviews included below.
When Ted Cruz won the Wisconsin primary on April 4, the ongoing conversation about a contested convention suddenly changed. Where once there was a low-level hum of vague possibility, just like there is during every election, suddenly people seemed to be saying, "Hey wake up. This might really happen now—and it might get ugly." But how that ugliness could potentially manifest itself was, for journalists, pure speculation. Fortunately, the Terraform project is a repository for precisely that kind of speculation.
So that's why I wrote the short story, "Contested Convention." It's about a crazy scenario, not necessarily a real one, but it's very much rooted in reality. In the course of writing that piece, my conversations with leading experts really gave me, I think, a complete picture of contested convention weirdness. So here are those conversations with Josh Putnam of the political science department at the University of Georgia, and creator of the election tracking site Frontloading HQ, and Richard E. Berg-Andersson creator of what might be the original election tracking website, TheGreenPapers.com, who explained just how crazy a brokered convention could get.
Both have been edited very slightly for readability, and the interview with Putnam is a combination of conversations from two different days. The places where their answers informed 'Contested Convention' are noted in the text. And be warned: The following contains nitty gritty details about delegate selection and party conventions.
MOTHERBOARD: Even at a contested convention, some delegates are bound to a candidate all the way to a fourth ballot. Can you imagine a contested scenario so long that it stretches out to a ballot vote?
Josh Putnam: When I'm thinking about this, and when I'm describing it to folks, to try and keep it as simple as possible, and to try and push most of the chaotic scenarios to the side, I think the easiest way to think about this right now, just given the evidence that we have—and again, we don't have a full dataset yet—but if Trump gets to 1,237, he's gonna be the nominee. If he doesn't, we're likely to get an inconclusive vote on the first ballot. That'll lead to a second ballot where a significant number of delegates will be. 35 states will become unbound after that first ballot. That's a lot of delegates, and that's a lot of unbound delegates. And if they were bound to Trump, but are sincere to Cruz, they're gonna flock to Cruz, and likely get him over 1,237. So the odds are against it going past two ballots, but is it possible that that happens? Sure, it's possible. It's just not very probable, as I see it.
My assessment: there's pretty much no way at this point in time for anyone to be nominated other than Trump and Cruz if they keep Rule 40. Is that accurate?
If Rule 40 stays in its current state, then yes that's true. Trump has already crossed the threshold where he would qualify under the current provisions as written. Cruz is likely to get there with the Wyoming state convention this coming weekend.
Might Trump want to abolish Rule 40?
I think the way things would operate in that case would be—Trump's been allocated the most delegates so far, but the early evidence through the selection process is that he's not doing well there. So he could have a not-trivial group of delegates who are bound to him on the first ballot, or the second ballot, or third, but they would prefer Ted Cruz, or anyone but Trump. So then when they're released on that second ballot, they could move to Cruz if they want to unify behind him, or they could even move to a third candidate, if that candidate can demonstrate support, under a hypothetically unchanged Rule 40. It's not clear to me that that would benefit Trump. It seems like if you're the Trump camp, you would want to put into the rules, something that would protect your position on all subsequent ballots, when and if you lose the support of bound delegates who are sincere supporters of another candidate.
So maybe some changed version of Rule 40?
Correct. But maybe not a sweeping change as is often talked about. Maybe an incremental change.
Can you be specific?
Well to protect his position on the ballot, the easiest way to do that is to say "if you qualify for a position on the first ballot, then you're guaranteed a position on all subsequent ballots."
In light of the RNC's recent statement that they won't change rules, I have a question about rules committees. This is the "standing" rules committee, right? Couldn't there still be rule changes?
Yes,  that article is referencing the RNC Standing Committee on Rules, which could not make changes to the rules anyway. They tend to make recommendations for changes and pass that on to the Convention Rules Committee, but the latter does not have to accept those recommendations. The Convention Rules Committee votes on and passes a package of changes that it then sends out to the floor for a vote by all 2472 delegates. That is where the rules changes occur.
How are the rules for the convention decided?
The convention is run not under Robert's Rules of Order, but the Rules of the House of Representatives.
When are the rules specific to the convention finalized?
They'd be finalized [the day before the convention] but the rules committee of the convention will have done their work in the week prior to the convention.
Are the rules voted on by only the rules committee, or does it go out to the floor?
The rules committee will pass a package.They send that out to the floor for what has tended to be a voice vote, an up-or-down vote. That's what you saw footage of in 2012—the aftermath of that voice vote.  But again, depending on the discretion of the chair of the convention, they could do a roll call vote on that—a public tally of who's supporting the rules package and who's not, and not just leave it up to a voice vote. But under normal circumstances, that's the way it's handled.
If the first ballot is deadlocked, how long will it be before there would be a second ballot?
 It seems like things would jump automatically into a second vote, but they've got some leeway on that. The rules aren't clear about how quickly that happens. I'd imagine they'd try to implement some kind of sequence there, where we've got a vote scheduled for x hour,  and if that's inconclusive, we'll reconvene at a later time. The details on that are still being ironed out.
Would they postpone the roll call vote for the vice presidential nominee?
That would definitely be postponed until the presidential stuff was finalized because it very much has become a point of leverage in the whole process for any number of—the candidates themselves, or the delegates could use that as a means of taking that out of the hands of the candidates themselves.
Who were the delegates shouting objections into microphones during the Rule 40 vote in 2012?
Those would have been Ron Paul supporters, and if they had access to a microphone, one would imagine that that would have been a state party chair, but there's a microphone near each of those stations where each of the delegations of the 56 states and territories are. I don't know of state chairs outside of maybe the one in Iowa that was a Ron Paul supporter at that point.
In your opinion, at this point it would have to be due to nominating some chair of the rules committee that's really really into Kasich or something like that that Rule 40 would get changed at this point. Do you see that as at all likely?
Well no. Not with two candidates who are likely to dominate the rules committee. If they don't end up doing that, then you could see a scenario where the rules get changed by—you can envision a scenario where a lot of these Cruz delegates that are making it through this election process on the rules committee are less Cruz supporters than Not Trump supporters, which is to say, they're party regulars. And they may be interested in another candidate. They're just using [Cruz] as a means of stopping Trump. In that scenario if a faction like that dominates the rules committee, then you might see the threshold potentially lowered, but that's something of a leap of faith at this point. It appears that the majority of these Cruz delegates that are making it through this selection process are sincere Cruz supporters.
Could you go into more detail about these false Cruz supporters?
Sure, I mean, we don't have any idea of how many of these there are, or could potentially be, but the potential is there for this to happen, right? So the idea is that we're going through this selection process, of filling the slots that have been allocated to particular candidates in the primaries and caucuses, and that through that process, you might end up with folks that are siding with Ted Cruz now, in the selection votes, and they're doing so as a means of stopping Trump, but not necessarily of supporting Cruz. Again, we don't know the extent to which this is an issue. The Cruz folks seem to have done their due diligence in 2015, in the early part of this year, in identifying people who are supportive of them. They seem to be marshaling them through the selection process.
These would be people who, in their heart of hearts, would be pushing for more of a centrist, but they have over the course of 2015 or 2016 appeared to be Cruz supporters. But then they would have to sort of double-cross at some point?
Right. I think that would be less the case if the Cruz campaign identified folks in 2015, but for some of these states with later deadlines that have yet to select their delegates, you may see a scenario where just trying to get folks who are Not Trump people into the mix that you see some alignment with Cruz as a means of stopping Trump, not as a means of supporting Ted Cruz.
So it would have to have been an elaborate ruse, in which delegates have been falsely and convincingly pledging loyalty to Cruz for a long time in order to stop Trump. Then planning to actually double-cross him in a way. Is that about right?
And that's—y'know—that's laying the groundwork for a significant backlash that... I don't think anybody within Republican circles is ready to cross that bridge.
What form would that backlash take?
Well I mean, at the convention itself it's hard to say what people would do in the spur of the moment—certainly in a heated situation. You may get riots outside the convention. What I'm talking about in terms of backlash is what you're likely to get in November in terms of folks' willingness to vote for the Republican nominee. In a setting where this goes beyond two ballots, you're talking about a setting where it's virtually assured that some group of folks are going to leave that convention upset. Feelings are going to be hurt, and that's going to affect the party's ability to unify for that November.
That's why Paul Ryan kinda stepped to the side today. He's cognizant of this: if someone that was not on a primary ballot at all is suddenly the nominee of the Republican party that there's gonna be a group of Republicans that are just not going to view that as legitimate, and not vote from him, and likely help Hillary Clinton out in the process.
If the first ballot were deadlocked, is it safe to assume that campaign members from the Trump and Cruz campaigns would have a list? They'd have studied this. They would know exactly which delegates to go and find. They've just been freed, and the campaigns know that they are potentially going the wrong way, and they could maybe turn them right there on the floor? Is it safe to assume there would be campaign operatives who would know exactly who to zero in on and make a beeline for them?
 I would think that's all but assured, right? I would think that they're identifying those folks now, and that process will continue in earnest after the primaries are done on June 7, and certainly continue until the 18th of July. So yeah, the attempt to gather information about as many of those 2,472 people as they can is certainly in the offing.
Cruz's ground game has been highly focused and intense. Would it be something where they would have pictures and know who each swingable candidate is?
Again, this will be semi-publicly available information. Certainly the state parties would share that with the campaigns, so everybody's gonna be on a seemingly even footing on that front. But it's put to them to organize that. If the Cruz folks have done their due diligence, as they have in other areas of the campaign, then one would imagine they'll have a leg up. Again, that's up to the campaigns. To the extent that they're going to be organized, I would assume they're going to. The reason Cruz has an advantage in the selection process now is that they were laying the groundwork for this in 2015 and early 2016. It doesn't appear that the Trump folks were too generally worried about that, and the Kasich folks were just trying to stay alive.
Is the fact that local Republicans in Cleveland are some of John Kasich's closest friends and allies going to affect the lineup of who's invited to speak?
Oh absolutely. The fact that the RNC is having to juggle—or at least the convention planners are having to juggle—a contested scenario where multiple votes may step on all the carefully-planned speakers that they have lined up certainly gets in the way of that. So it very definitely affects the planning for who's going to speak, and likely limits significantly the number of people that will have time there. And it may not operate as it normally does. It may not operate [in such a way that] Ohio in this case welcomes Republicans to this state, and extolling the virtues of the Republican party, not only in the state, but nationally.
MOTHERBOARD: During a presidential ballot at the convention, how are the voting results communicated from a state delegation to the convention secretary?
Richard E. Berg-Andersson: It's literally a roll call where the states are called in alphabetical order, and they announce their votes, and if nobody has 1,237 at the end of the first ballot there's an intermission, and there'll be a second ballot, and they'll call the state in order again. Hopefully the state delegations will be tired of talking about how great their lakes are, or their waterfalls or whatever. They'll be shorter, and that'll complete the time it takes to complete the ballot. Every ballot is a roll call. It's the rules.
Would the results of a second, third, and even fourth ballot be decided earlier in the day?
 No. There'll be states caucusing until their name is called. And remember: delegations can say "pass" and say "we're not ready to announce our vote." Then they pass, and go to the next state. What traditionally happens at the end of each ballot—and there's only been one ballot at every convention I can remember, and I'm 60-years-old—at the end of the roll call, the convention secretary asks "Are there any states which have not voted." Well, first of all they call the states that have not yet voted—a list of who passed, and they go in alphabetical order through the states that have passed. And every delegation, including the territories, has to announce its vote before the ballot is considered to be complete. So they call the roll in alphabetical order, from Alabama through Wyoming, including the territories, and then any state that was passed is called in alphabetical order. And then then that's done,  they ask "Does any state wish to change its votes?" which a state can do. A state might caucus and say "Hey, we might be the one to put this guy over." That's how it works, and then once that is done, then the ballot is ended. Then the tellers on the dais with the convention secretary and the convention chairman, announce a total, and if the total isn't enough to nominate somebody, they go to ballot number 2 and do it all over again.
Can delegates come and go?
 People move in and out all the time. There might be a case with the second ballot where, depending on what time it as a delegate might have to go get something to eat. Once a delegation has passed its vote, it's not required to be on the floor anymore. There may be some rules, where they might have to take time, sort of like when I'm at a baseball game, and I decide it's the fourth inning, and I want to get a beer, and I've got to wait until the inning ends so that I don't block somebody's view. In the older conventions you always heard "Will the sergeant at arms please clear the aisles!" That was an old fashioned thing that used to go on. The idea was that you didn't want to clog the aisles, but yeah, people are talking to each other. Leaders of one delegation are coming over and talking to leaders of another delegations near them about maybe some strategy that involves—you know—maybe there are two delegations near each other that mostly have, say Cruz supporters. Well you might have the leaders of the delegation who are Cruz supporters talking to each other about "What's going on?" or "What are we gonna do?" Floor manager for the campaigns that are on the floor. People have floor privileges that are not necessarily delegates.
Can campaign workers actively lobby delegates on the convention floor during a roll call?
Oh yeah. I'll give you an example from history: 1968. Richard Nixon did not know, when the roll call started—when the convention secretary called "Alabama!" Richard Nixon did not know whether he had enough delegates to win on the first ballot. His campaign floor managers told him he might have 620 or 625 and he needed 667. And by the end of the first ballot, he had 692, just 25 more than he needed, and  those were gotten for him by people working the rather large room in the course of the roll call, and making sure that the voters didn't abstain, or stick with a favorite son candidate, back when you used to have favorite son candidates.
Finally, please note: for state-by-state delegate breakdowns, I used the Republican delegate allocation page at Frontloading HQ.