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An Unconventional GOP Primary Roadmap

The race for the Republican Presidential nomination is officially underway with Ted Cruz’s win in the Iowa Caucus and Donald Trump taking the first in the nation primary in New Hampshire. Will this lead us to an unconventional GOP Convention?

There are key dates and rules to know on the road to winning enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination before the RNC Convention in Cleveland this July.

The South Carolina Primary and Nevada Caucus are up next on February 20 and February 23 respectively, and there are five arguably viable candidates in the race. These next two states could further reduce the field to 4 or even 3 leading candidates as we approach Super Tuesday on March 1st, where fourteen states will allocate over 26% of the republican delegates. Of those included in Super Tuesday, seven are states from the conservative south with 453 delegates while the other seven will be scattered across the country. 

None of the remaining candidates will likely break out from the pack on March 1st as all of the state primaries on Super Tuesday, as well as the next eleven states to vote the following week, award their delegates on a proportional basis. Due to each state having slightly different rules and minimum thresholds for awarding delegates as well as candidates with regional strengths, it is possibly that we could see a nearly even split of delegates across several viable candidates similar to Iowa.   

This leads us to March 15th, where the Republican National Committee (RNC) rules allow the remaining states to hold “winner take all” elections. Here is where Bush, Rubio, or even Kasich, if he has enough money to go that far, could break out from the Cruz/Trump shadow as the winners of the “take all” states can grab over 150 delegates and more from other large state primaries that day.  If either Trump or Cruz can maintain narrow leads in these states, they could effectively sideline the other candidates and turn this into a two person race. Also noteworthy is that North Carolina holds its primary on March 15 too—it’s the last of the Bible Belt southern states to vote. It is easy to see a situation where one of the candidates stalls here—particularly Cruz as he relies on evangelical support.

Speculation for a ‘brokered’ convention needs to wait until after March 15th when over 60% of the total delegates will have been awarded. If a leading candidate has not moved ahead of the pack with a solid lead, an unconventional RNC convention is now possible. However, with nearly half of the republican delegates outstanding, more “winner take all” states to follow, plus California in June with its 159 delegates selected by Congressional District of 172 total, a presumptive nominee could still emerge before the convention.

The RNC has not seen a convention start without a presumptive nominee since 1976 when Gerald Ford had more primary delegates than Reagan, but not the 50%+1 to secure the nomination.  Ford went on to beat Reagan after a contentious fight over the large number of unpledged delegates. The chance for such a situation to occur today has been dramatically reduced with the emergence of primaries for choosing delegates in most states.  

This July, there will be at most 126 delegates unpledged to a candidate in Cleveland. Party leaders years ago changed the process to the current primary and caucus delegate selection model to minimize the chance of a contested nomination fight at the convention, and to provide a more open and democratic selection process.  However, if there are three or four candidates that perform strongly throughout the primaries, none may arrive at the convention with a simple majority of delegates—1237 or more out of a total 2472.  

Some speculation on what could happen without a presumptive nominee surrounds the potential power of the potentially 126 unpledged delegates.  While these delegates could band together to trigger a “brokered convention,” the likely power would actually come from the RNC Rules Committee, which could vote on modifying the nomination rules in the weeks before the convention.  

One possible change is Rule 40 that requires a candidate to carry the majority in at least eight states to be viable for the party nomination.  Changing this rule could end up excluding one or more candidates that carried general election in blue (Democrat leaning) states.  However, any attempt to use party rules to exclude a candidate could see an outcry over the exercise of power by “the establishment,” especially given the current mood of the electorate.  Realistically, the RNC is more likely to use the rule making process to ensure a fair process.

The speculation over a ‘brokered convention’ is entertaining to American political pundits and observers as the mood of the electorate and the personalities running this election year help fuel such conjecture. The reality is that we should have a clear picture of who the presumptive nominee in six to eight weeks—unless this year is unconventional, which it is.   


Darrell Henry, with Josh Ferenick

Darrell Henry is a Partner in the Public and Government Affairs firm Gavel Resources and the political convention services firm GOP Convention Strategies. Josh Ferenick, a freelance researcher, also contributed to this article.

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