The Republican Rules Committee started its deliberations on time Thursday and then quickly adjourned for a three-hour break. And no wonder. This committee, composed of 112 RNC members and delegates to the convention, was the last place where anti-Trump forces could have derailed Donald Trump’s historic candidacy and the last bulwark between coronation and chaos for the GOP as it convenes next week in Cleveland.
There were four last ditch scenarios… three of which ultimately died in the Rules Committee after a marathon 16-hour session in which Rules Committee Chairwoman Enid Mickelsen of Utah miraculously kept her cool, even as the tragedy in France unfolded. In the end, one of the leaders of the dump Trump movement, Kendal Unruh of Colorado, withdrew the last of her amendments, certain by that time that the exhausted committee members would defeat them and her impassioned pleas to allow delegates to “vote their conscience.”
1. Free the delegates.
The Rules Committee could have repealed rules that “bind” delegates to vote for the presidential candidate who won their state. In practice this would have meant that a delegate who is elected to support Trump but who tries to vote for someone else can “be deemed to have concurrently resigned as a delegate and the delegate’s improper vote or nomination shall be null and void.” If this repeal had passed by a majority vote of the entire committee it would have been a big slap in the face to Trump. But luckily for Trump, the leadership of the Republican National Committee, caught between nominating an uncertain and untested standard bearer and alienating millions of Trump voters, worked with the Trump campaign to beat back those challenges.
2. Free the delegates—the floor fight
Observers watched the vote counts closely – mostly to see if there were enough votes in the anti-Trump camp to bring a minority report to the floor of the convention. In the end it appears that they were short of the 28 votes needed, and convention delegates will not get to vote on whether or not to reject the binding provisions in the rules.
3. The roll call
The stop Trump people have another option before them. Rule 37 (b) governs how the roll call for president shall proceed. It allows the chairman of each state’s delegation to report the vote. But it also allows any delegate to take exception to that vote. That action will prompt the Chairman of the delegation to poll the delegation and report the results of that poll. “The result shall then be recorded in accordance with the vote of the several delegates in such delegation.” A “disloyal” Trump delegate can, therefore get his or her preference recorded without the binding rule being revoked. The normally pro forma roll call could go on for hours and hours were this to happen. Nonetheless, this is a difficult strategy to pull off since it would require significant control of the floor of the convention by anti-Trump forces. This may be hard to accomplish without the help of the Republican National Committee staff who have been working with Trump toward a peaceful convention.
4. Take a walk
Finally, it has been suggested that anti-Trump delegates sit out the first ballot. They could discover an urgent need to get their nails done, their shoes shined or their stomachs filled. If enough delegates missed out on the first ballot and denied Trump the magic number of delegates to nominate, the convention could go on to a second ballot. The vast majority of delegates become unbound on the second ballot. Magically anti-Trump delegates would reappear by the second ballot—now unbound by the results of their states’ caucuses and primaries—probably only to splinter their votes among many candidates. And then there would be a long pause while the party “brokered” its way to a nominee for the first time since 1952.
The underlying issue here in Cleveland is exactly the same issue that plagued Democrats back in 1980. What, exactly, is the role of a delegate? Is he or she a “robot” that should automatically vote for the presidential candidate they were selected to represent? Or is a delegate someone who is supposed to use some judgement in casting their vote at the convention?
In 1980 a weak incumbent President, Jimmy Carter, faced a serious challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy. But Kennedy came to the convention several hundred delegates short. He mounted a challenge to the rule the Democrats had on the books at the time. Dubbed the “robot” rule by Kennedy supporters, the rule said that any delegate who voted against the wishes of the voters in their state could be replaced on the convention floor. Although there was plenty of angst over being called a “robot,” it was clear to all the delegates to the 1980 convention that a vote to repeal this rule was a vote against President Carter. In the end Carter prevailed on the vote and won the nomination.
When the smoke cleared, Democrats adopted a rule that has stood to this day. The compromise language? Delegates shall “in all good conscience” vote for the presidential candidate they were selected to represent. In practice this has meant that candidates are presumed to vote for the candidate who won their state or district in the primaries BUT there is an out—to be used when the candidate presents an issue of conscience. What an “issue of conscience” is, exactly, is unspecified, but the conclusion is to trust delegates to know it when they see it.
When the dust settles from this convention that’s where the Republican Party may end up as well, especially since they will follow up this election season with a commission on party rules.
This post has been updated to reflect the RNC rules committee votes on the evening of July 14th.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.