The Rule 40 Trap

Let’s face it, political conventions are boring. There is no suspense. The nominee is known well in advance. Essentially this is just a show, and not a particularly good one at that. Speeches drone on and demonstrations are choreographed and scheduled to the minute. It is probably fun for the participants but no one else. Every now and again there is a spellbinding speech, but by then most people will have switched their TVs to watch NCIS or American Idol instead.

But this was not always the case, far from it. In the not too distant past, conventions were exciting events with the outcome seriously in doubt. When TV coverage began, the whole country stood still as everyone watched and wondered. The convention floor was chaotic, with spontaneous demonstrations interrupting the process and even occasional altercations as rival delegations clashed. Some conventions went through many vote counts, and there were gasps as delegations switched their votes and the rivals’ vote counts waxed and waned, sometimes getting achingly close to the magic number.

Backroom-DealsThese were the infamous brokered conventions. And the political powers hated the uncertainty, while relishing the opportunities that it offered for personal gain. In smoke-filled back rooms, steely-eyed bosses traded votes for political patronage, job offers in the anticipated administration, or quite likely for cash on the line.

Probably for the best, those days are over – or are they? In 2012, there was a big fight during the rules meeting at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. The goal was to crack down on insurgencies like that of former Rep. Ron Paul, but one often overlooked change could bring back those bad old days. This is Rule 40 in the RNC handbook. It states the any candidate for President “shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states” before their name is presented for nomination at the national convention. Amusingly, the genesis of this change was a desire to streamline the nomination of President Mitt Romney for his second term.

Where there is an obvious front-runner, this threshold shouldn’t be a problem. But the Republicans now have the most wide-open nomination battle in decades, and it is entirely conceivable that either multiple candidates could win enough states or even that none could meet Rule 40’s criterion. Of course, each state sets its own rules for how delegates are apportioned, and perhaps many would decide for winner-take-all. Surely that would create an early winner, wouldn’t it? Well, there is another kicker. The RNC counsel has decided that they could only do that if the first place finisher received at least 50% of the vote. I can easily see this being a very difficult hurdle almost everywhere given the probable field of candidates.

Of course, what has been done can be undone. The RNC could just change the rules again if it appeared that this catastrophe might happen. But there is yet one final issue. As things stand they are only permitted to make such a change on the eve of the convention. Obviously if they made it in the middle of the primary season, everyone would object. But doing it after the game is played out would justifiably annoy the losers and we would see a big convention fight over the new rules. I suspect they would just bite the bullet and go ahead as is.

So if this came to pass, how would it work? On the first ballot at the convention, most delegates are formally required to cast their votes for their assigned candidates, according to the primaries or caucuses that chose them. If no one gets sufficient votes to gain the nomination, then basically all bets are off. In theory, every delegate can vote his conscience or predilection. Practically speaking this really isn’t true. Most state delegations have leaders who hold strong sway over their members. They are really only free when the leader releases them. As I’ve noted, these votes have value and can be traded to advantage, although sometimes they are simply released because the candidate himself withdraws. When that happens the candidate usually throws his support to a rival to gain some benefit for himself. Vice-President, anyone?