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Would contested GOP convention 'steal' nomination from Donald Trump?

If Trump wins the most states, the GOP would not be breaking establishment rules to deny him, but those rules are exactly what Trump voters decry.

Brynn Anderson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the crowd asking them to take a pledge to promise to vote for him during a campaign rally in Orlando, Fla., Saturday. If Mr. Trump wins a majority of states, the GOP establishment may seek to deny him the nomination via a brokered convention.

The Republican Party could be headed towards a wild, contested convention in Cleveland this July. That’s a possible outcome of the current elbows-out nominee battle. If the contenders block each other out and no one reaches the winning number of 1,237 delegates, the convention itself will decide who receives the crown. Wouldn’t that be entertaining?

This may even be the #NeverTrump crowd’s current preferred scenario. Mitt Romney and the rest of the establishment Donald Trump opposition want all the current candidates to stay in the race. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) has already won his home state of Texas; if Sen. Marco Rubio (R) wins his home of Florida and Gov. John Kasich (R) wins Ohio, nobody gets to 1,237. Backroom wheeling and dealing, here we come!

But is this realistic? Isn’t it possible that the outcome of this would be an angry and divided party, or former party, as opposed to political entertainment?

Would a contested convention by definition be unfair?

Many members of the Republican elite, meaning lawmakers, big donors, lobbyists, and interest group leaders, think it would not be. Their bedrock point is that it would be playing by established rules.

A plurality of votes does not win the nomination. It takes 50 percent plus one. And delegates are not permanently bound to vote for the candidate they represent when they reach the convention. After the first ballot, most can pick whomever they wish. After two or three ballots, every delegate is a free agent.

Many would be loyal to their original choice, of course. That’s where the “contested” part comes in. It’s hard to predict how this would play out, but one likely outcome might be two candidates joining in a ticket with one allocated the VP slot. Senator Cruz/ Senator Rubio together, for instance, could well top Mr. Trump in an open convention battle.

Or the convention could turn to another candidate entirely – someone who did not run in the primaries, if it remains deadlocked after multiple ballots. Mr. Romney seems available. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin might be as well.

This is how Trump could lose the nomination if he’s the delegate leader entering the convention, but has less than 1,237 votes. It would not even be unusual by historical standards, given that brokered conventions were the norm in the pre-primary nomination system prior to the Watergate scandal.

“Say it again: If a majority of voters vote non-Trump & he falls short of a delegate majority, nothing can be stolen,” tweeted Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, on Tuesday.

Try telling that to Trump supporters. The problem here is that the establishment is arguing rules and precedents with a party faction that’s rebelling against everything rules and precedents symbolize.

The GOP establishment will have a difficult time explaining why Trump is not the nominee if he wins the most states, votes, and delegates of all the candidates, writes Boston College political scientist David Hopkins.

“If he falls short of an overall majority, of course, he would not be automatically recognized by the party itself as its official nominee, but he would still be widely seen by the citizenry as having the most legitimate claim to the prize – especially in comparison to someone like Romney or Paul Ryan who didn’t even face the voters this year,” writes Hopkins at his Honest Graft blog.

If Rubio, say, wins the nomination via convention the 35 to 40 percent of Republicans who turned out for The Donald may well erupt in fury. They’ll cry “betrayal” and many may stay home in November. Or worse, they’ll spurn the GOP entirely. Say what you will about Trump, but he’s expanded and energized the party base, points out conservative commentator Erick Erickson.

"The Republicans peddling this theory will obtain only a pyrrhic victory. The GOP itself will crumble if it does this." writes Mr. Erickson, who is opposed to Trump himself.

But does the GOP establishment, the conservative elite that has controlled the party for a generation, want Trump voters? That’s not clear. At least, it’s not clear that Romney et al want to be members of a party that is more populist and nativist, with a dash of authoritarianism on top.

Thus the possibility of a party crack-up. If Trump is denied the nomination despite winning a plurality, his supporters might walk. If he wins the nomination, some of his opponents might split. Prior to either of these things happening, the convention itself will be like nothing seen since 1976, when Ronald Reagan came within a whisker of denying incumbent Gerald Ford the nomination.

“The rules will get challenged. Delegate slates will get challenged. Floor motions. Oh man it is going to be GONZO,” tweeted Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard earlier this week.


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