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Here's A Round-By-Round Guide To A Contested GOP Convention

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally April 6 in Bethpage, N.Y. While New York was key for Trump in racking up delegates, there aren't many contests remaining and he is still short of a majority.
Andrew Renneisen
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally April 6 in Bethpage, N.Y. While New York was key for Trump in racking up delegates, there aren't many contests remaining and he is still short of a majority.

You'd be excused if you tuned out in previous years when the actual nominating part of a political convention occurred. Usually it's a pro forma exercise with little suspense, as each state ticks off its vote for the eventual nominee. And that nominee has been known well in advance — at least for the last 40 years, anyway.

But this year a contested convention actually seems possible, if not probable, on the Republican side. It's the stuff of journalists' dreams and political consultants' nightmares.

Donald Trump got a big win in New York Tuesday, and he leads in the delegate race. That victory helped his cause to try to reach the magic 1,237 majority before primary voting ends on June 7, but he is still only about two-thirds of the way there with just 15 contests remaining. What's more, there's an increasingly vocal — and more focused — #NeverTrump movement within the GOP with many seasoned operatives working overtime against him. And, as the Republican National Committee's Rules Committee meets this week in Hollywood, Fla., some on that committee are trying to pry open a door for someone other than Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to be put in nomination at the convention.

While it's virtually impossible for Cruz to get a majority of delegates before July's convention — and mathematically impossible for Ohio Gov. John Kasich — there's certainly a path to stop the controversial real estate mogul at the convention. The process is as confusing as it is exciting for young political nerds, whose only exposure to such a scenario happened on The West Wing and House of Cards.

Here's how it would work in real life, based on interviews with several convention veterans, advisers to the candidates and Republican operatives:

Round 1: The Biggest Test For Trump — And His Best Bet

The reality TV star is likely to head to Cleveland with the most delegates. But without the requisite majority, his path gets much more complicated on the convention floor.

The unbound delegates

Theoretically, the first ballot at the convention would proceed as what normally happens — the roll call begins and each state casts votes based on who won its primary or caucuses. Most are bound to those state results, but about 200 delegates, or roughly 5 percent, are unbound and could switch their allegiance. Also important, just 17 of Pennsylvania's 71 delegates are bound on the first ballot.

States to watch here include ones that have had conventions or similar processes to pick their delegates. Keep an eye on the three delegations that are complete free agents on the first ballot — North Dakota and the U.S. territories of American Samoa and Guam. Combined, they have 46 delegates. They could be among the most coveted delegations at the convention at the start.

"Restricted free agents"

These are delegates from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Wyoming and Colorado. These 75 delegates have more freedom than those bound by caucus or primary results, but less than the complete free agents listed above. That's because if the delegates did declare a candidate preference at their state convention, then they are bound for that first ballot, based on state party rules.

This is where organizing is so crucial, something Cruz has been better at than Trump so far. The Texas senator and his staff have paid special attention to these contests — something that's likely to pay off. In North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming, he appears to have ended up with a strong slate of Cruz-friendly delegates.

"Zombie" delegates

There are almost 200 delegates (196) pledged to other candidates no longer in the race. Let's call them zombie delegates, because they will come back and vote — for someone. Marco Rubio has the most zombie delegates with 171. He currently outpaces Kasich, who is still in the race. The Florida senator has indicated he may hang on to some of his pledged supporters for a while, possibly anticipating a multiple-ballot convention, where he could hold more sway — or even make a long-shot comeback. The majority are still bound to him on at least the first ballot, but others are already freed.

Other former candidates have far fewer delegates, but in a race where every vote could matter it could be important to watch where those go, too. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has eight, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has four and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul each have one.

In some states, the candidates must publicly release their delegates and can urge them to back a specific candidate, but the delegates are not obligated to vote that way. Other states, however, like Iowa, still require their delegates to vote for candidates that may have dropped out if there's more than one candidate in the running.

"The first ballot is going to be Trump's chance to be the Republican nominee. Either he's clearly got the 1,237 lined up or he's close to it, and can he convince enough unbound or uncommitted delegates to join him and get him over 1,237," said Henry Barbour, a member of the RNC Rules Committee from Mississippi. "If Donald Trump doesn't get it on the first ballot, I think he is probably going to not do as good a job on the delegate-selection process, where Cruz is doing well."

Round 2: Where It All Starts To Come Apart

If the convention heads to a second ballot, the real drama begins.

"I think the second ballot will be Ted Cruz's opportunity to become the nominee," Barbour said. "I think you'd see Trump's numbers fade."

More than half the delegates, over 1,400 of them, are now free to vote for whomever they want.

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering and relationship building

This is where behind-the-scenes maneuvering and building relationships with delegates will pay off in dividends, and knowing where those delegates' true allegiances lie. Cruz has been prepared for this and has an organized operation that gives him a leg up.

Trump, after crying foul and claiming the process is unfair, seems to have finally realized he needs veteran operatives to handle the complex convention process. He recently named Paul Manafort, a veteran of Gerald Ford's 1976 convention battle, as his convention manager and chief delegate wrangler. Manafort added former RNC Political Director Rick Wiley to the effort. Wiley also ran Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's ill-fated 2016 presidential bid. Nonetheless, Trump's late start puts him at a disadvantage.

Beware: "SINOs" — supporters in name only

Many actual delegates aren't chosen directly based on primary and caucus voting but are instead assigned at later state-party conventions. Delegates may have been allocated proportionally in some places, but exactly who they are doesn't get decided until county, congressional district or state conventions.

For example, Trump won all of Arizona's 58 delegates, but the names of those delegates are determined at the state convention on April 30.

And many of those people may be SINOs, or "supporters in name only," as longtime Michigan GOP strategist John Yob describes in his book, Chaos: The Outsider's Guide to a Contested Republican National Convention.

"Candidates and campaigns need to put resources into those state conventions," Yob told NPR, "and they need to make sure the delegates that are elected are truly supportive of them in their hearts and minds and not just as part of an allocation process."

In other words, while these SINOs have to be loyal to Trump on the first ballot, per their state rules, they could switch to Cruz or a different candidate on subsequent ballots. That's what Trump's campaign alleges might happen in South Carolina (unbound on the second ballot) and Tennessee (unbound on the third ballot), for example.

These delegates could hold sway in approving convention rules (which we'll dig into in just a bit) and other procedural matters, but their most significant action is likely to be whether they switch allegiances in a multiple-ballot scenario.

"The most problematic action of these SINOs would be for them to use their position to swing momentum on the ballot that follows the lifting of binding," Yob writes in Chaos. "The first ballot that allows delegates to vote their true hearts and minds is going to have a far different result than the last ballot that binds the delegates based on the result of the primary or caucuses. When the election goes multiple ballots, there will be a large number of swing delegates and those delegates will be watching for momentum to make sure they're on the winning side."

Round 3: All Bets Are Off

On the third ballot, there's only one state that is still completely bound to vote for its primary winner — Florida. So Trump is guaranteed the 99 delegates he won in the winner-take-all Sunshine State, but that may be his only sure thing.

And if Trump can't wrestle the nomination on the first ballot, and Cruz can't make up the ground on the second, the rule book — or at least the rules agreed upon by a majority of delegates at the outset of the whole convention — could go out the window.

Suspending the rules

This, essentially, is Kasich's strategy. As of now, he wouldn't qualify to win the nomination because of the highly scrutinized RNC Rule 40(b), which requires that any candidate for nomination have the support of a majority of delegates in at least eight states. This was changed from a five-state requirement ahead of the 2012 convention at the urging of Mitt Romney supporters to avoid having then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul's supporters nominate him at the convention. (Paul still received votes at the 2012 convention.)

Trump has already met the requirement, and Cruz's campaign anticipates he will hit that benchmark as well, once all states have voted. Cruz has already won a majority of bound delegates in six states: Texas, Utah, Kansas, Maine, Idaho and Wisconsin. (He's also been allocated 34 of Colorado's 37 delegates by the AP, but those delegates are unbound.)

Enter white knight — Kasich or someone else

If that rule isn't changed when the Rules Committee meets the week before the convention, many anticipate there will be a call to suspend the rules or revise them, and Kasich, or even an outside candidate, could come into the mix.

"If, at the convention, Trump or Cruz don't win on the first two ballots, then I think the rules likely would get changed to open it up," Barbour predicted. "But that won't happen unless a majority of delegates agree to it."

A deadlock that forces a third ballot is Kasich's only real hope now — in fact, it's mathematically impossible for him to achieve 1,237 before the convention. But his allies hope that the fact that many of the delegates — now free agents — who are party stalwarts and have the ultimate goal of defeating Hillary Clinton if she's the Democratic nominee will put their faith in Kasich as the strongest candidate to beat her in November.

"I do think Cruz is well-organized, and most of the delegates that are bound to him will be his people, but he's going to be stuck around 650, 700 at the most, and he can't go any further, because most of these party regulars that hold down the delegate seats don't like him either," argued Charlie Black, a longtime GOP power broker and Reagan 1976 convention veteran who is now advising Kasich. "They think he's way too conservative and not very nice."

Round 4: And Beyond ...

If there's still no victor after three ballots, almost all delegates are free to go where they want.

Roughly 94 percent of them will be free agents. Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are all bound to their candidate until released by that candidate or until that candidate drops off the ballot.

In Wisconsin, delegates are bound until a candidate drops below 33 percent of the vote on the convention floor, per state party officials.

And if that's the scenario, Republicans say to expect the unexpected — rules changes, more possible candidates and plenty of arm-twisting behind the scenes.

"Nobody knows what's really going to happen," Barbour said.

NPR's Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.