Throughout primary season Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, repeated a familiar refrain. Whether asked about the possible nomination of Trump or the New York businessman's potential impact on the party platform, Priebus kept saying essentially the same thing: it is up to the delegates. The intent now as then is the same. It is a balance between a party apparatus wanting to assure those affiliated with it that has some control over a process but that does not want it to appear as if it has its thumb on the scale. That is a balancing act that is tough under normal conditions, but takes on a heightened level of difficulty when a party is divided and/or has a unique frontrunner/presumptive nominee.
In 2016 the Republican Party has both. It has an unconventional presumptive nominee who has not only faced resistance all along, but who has reactivated traditional dividing lines within the party and animated dormant or latent ones.1 And both facets feed each other. Seemingly every word or deed from Donald Trump fuels the fire of opposition that has been longer in duration than that of any other cycle since the nearly evenly matched fight for the 1976 Republican nomination between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
The difference from 1976 to now is that Trump warded off all of his challengers on his way to a clear majority of bound delegates. Yet, pockets of resistance remain, small though they may be when compared to the full population of national convention delegates, and continue to search for outlets for their collective opposition to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The latest, spurred by an organizing minority faction of delegates, revisits the oft-discussed proposal to unbind the delegates through a change of the Rules of the Republican Party at the convention in Cleveland. An alternative change -- a conscience clause -- would allow delegates an out if they disagree with the presumptive nominee to whom they are bound.
Either proposal makes enough sense in theory (for that minority faction), but getting to that point -- a rules change -- is another endeavor altogether. There are a couple of layers to this. First, the path leads through the Convention Rules Committee. Some have argued that it would take just 57 votes to change the rules; to unbind the delegates or at the very least provide some of them with an opportunity to opt out of supporting Trump in a roll call vote on the floor of the convention.
But that is an oversimplification that obscures two important points:
1) It largely ignores the membership of the committee. The majority of the publicly known members of the Convention Rules Committee are members of the RNC themselves. That suggests at least something about the motivations of the committee. While they may not necessarily be Trump supporters, members of the RNC -- national committeemen and committeewomen and state party chairs -- are more likely than the elected at-large and congressional district delegates to defend the bulk of the rules that govern the Republican nomination process. To be clear, these automatic delegates on the Convention Rules Committee are not stooges of the Republican National Committee. The three of them from each state are elected at the state level and carry with them to national party functions the diversity of views represented across the country. That said, those delegates are more likely to fall in line with the balancing act described above; to carefully consider not only rules changes, but their implications as well.
All this is to say that those members of the Convention Rules Committee may not support Trump (or be bound to him on the roll call vote), but they have a common interest in A) (theoretically) defending the current rules2 and B) avoiding the sort of chaos that detracts from the goal of the modern national convention. In other words, letting a rules fight get out of the Committee and onto the floor hurts the ability of the party to demonstrate some semblance of unity before a national audience.3
2) It is also worth noting that the bar is not actually as high as 57 votes -- a simple majority of the 112 member Convention Rules Committee -- to change the rules. That is the surest way of making a change, but there are other, perhaps more plausible goals for those seeking to halt a Trump nomination or at the very least make his getting to a formal nomination more difficult. If the Stop Trump delegates fail to get an unbinding rules change through Rules, the current rules do allow them the ability to send a minority report (amendment) to the floor for consideration by the convention. That maneuver, under the provisions of Rule 34, only requires the support of one quarter of the membership of the Convention Rules Committee (or 23 votes). This is a pretty limited power, however. Such an amendment (from a minority faction) can be tabled and very likely would be if the chair of the convention does not back the move.
Limited though that power could be, getting a minority report to the floor would be a step up from the small scale backlash from Ron Paul supporters in Tampa in 2012. Again, the formal party within the convention would be motivated to avoid the 2012 ante being upped in 2016. As such, this is a bit of leverage for those who want Stop Trump. This was likely at least part of the calculus behind Priebus's call to state party leaders to assess the extent of anti-Trump sentiment among the 56 delegations. Getting a sense of that whip count both in the Rules Committee and on the floor is an important piece of information
The flashpoint for all of this -- this back and forth -- is the Convention Rules Committee meeting before the convention commences. A very likely middle ground is that the Rules Committee report to the full convention is likely to keep the bulk of the rules in place for consideration after the convention in 2017-18. That means that any move to unbind the delegates or provide for a conscience clause is likely to be dead on arrival or barring that doomed to fall short.
Yet, the one tweak that might make it out of committee that also might provide some level of protest against Trump is some variation of the Blackwell amendment tabled at the RNC winter meeting in Charleston earlier this year. The mechanics of this can be technical, but essentially what the amendment would do is clean up the language in Rule 16 (the rule binding delegates to candidates) and bring it in line with Rule 40 (the rule that lays out the process for placing candidates in nomination). As it stands now, only those votes (whether bound or from the small number of unbound delegates) for candidates placed in nomination are counted. Votes for, say, Rubio or Kasich -- candidates who control a majority of delegates in fewer than eight states -- would not be counted. Even if they were released, those delegates votes would only be recorded if they opted to vote for Trump (or Cruz if he hangs on to his delegates and has his name placed in nomination).4
Relaxing the provisions of Rule 16 to allow votes for other (now) non-qualifiers to be recorded and counted by the secretary of the convention is not a cure-all. In fact, as this latest, delegate-driven attempt to derail Trump's nomination is still in its infancy, the idea may seem quite unpalatable to those folks. However, while it is also a limited bargaining chip, it one that might give those in the Stop Trump faction one last outlet of opposition to Trump's nomination.
Of course, there is still about a month until the convention and this latest Stop Trump iteration may not have crescendoed yet. Given where the other attempts have ended up, history, it seems, does not appear to be on their side. And the balancing act is all up to the delegates.
1 This likely requires further explication. No, Trump has not necessarily directly charged the historical fault lines within the party. However, none of the factions in it have been able to coalesce around an effective plan to slow down or prevent a Trump nomination. The lack of agreement there has had the indirect effect of exacerbating the extant divisions.
2 This is certainly true if there is any stalemate on the committee regarding the package of rules change recommendations Rules makes or individual changes the committee may discuss. In both cases, if the committee grinds to a halt, the likelihood of the status quo rules (or something very close to them) carrying over increases.
3 That may, admittedly, be difficult regardless in 2016.
4 That does not seem likely at this point.
The Electoral College Map (6/21/16)
The Electoral College Map (6/17/16)
The Electoral College Map (6/16/16)