clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The convention coup attempt against Trump, explained

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Update (9:55 pm Eastern): As expected, the proposal to unbind the delegates was overwhelmingly defeated by the convention rules committee. And the Free the Delegates supporters also seem to have fallen short of the threshold they needed to force a vote on their proposal by the full convention. One of the last obstacles to Trump's nomination is now gone.

Original story: It’s been a really tough few months for the GOP’s #NeverTrump movement. Donald Trump won a clear majority of delegates who are bound by party rules to back his nomination at the convention — seemingly ensuring that he’ll be the Republican presidential nominee. Game over, right?

Yet the most fervent anti-Trump campaigners have long held on to one slim reed of hope that there’s still a way to stop him. Namely, it’s theoretically possible for those convention delegates to vote to change the party’s rules and "unbind" themselves, so they can vote for whomever they want. And if they manage to do that, they could just ... well, nominate somebody else.

So in recent weeks, a small group of delegates and a slightly larger group of outside operatives and commentators have been publicly pushing for this to happen, under the slogan "Free the Delegates" (or, if you prefer, "Dump Trump").

They’ll make their case to their fellow delegates on Thursday and Friday of this week, when the convention’s rules committee meets in Cleveland. And while they still seem to be very far away from getting the support they need to actually depose Trump, it’s possible they’ll get enough support in the committee to force an embarrassing vote on the matter at the full convention, according to new reports from NBC and the New York Times.

To be clear, it really, really, really looks like this effort will fail in the end. The Republican National Committee and most delegates seem to have no interest in overturning what they believe to be the will of their party’s voters, as expressed in the primary and caucus results.

But the delegates have such power that, yes, theoretically, this is possible, if enough of them actually want to make it happen. And it’s even easier for anti-Trump forces to nominate a vice president that Trump doesn’t want — again, if enough of them actually want to.

Delegates have to vote for Trump because of the binding rule. But the binding rule can be changed.

This is the rule that would have to be changed to "free the delegates."
Rules of the Republican Party

The reason most think Trump has the nomination in the bag is because, by the current set of rules the party is following, more than 90 percent of delegates will go to the convention "bound" to cast their ballots for a particular presidential candidate — and most of them will be bound to Trump.

That’s because of Rule 16(a), which you can read above. "Any statewide presidential preference vote that permits a choice" among GOP primary candidates, the rule states, "must be used to allocate and bind the state’s delegation to the national convention in either a proportional or winner-take-all manner."

Translation: If your state holds a primary or caucus in which voters choose among presidential candidates, your state’s delegates have to be divvied up based on the actual outcome in that contest.

Either those delegates all have to go to the first-place finisher (winner-take-all) or they can be split up to multiple candidates proportionally based on the vote share. But in either case, when these delegates actually cast their ballots for who the presidential nominee should be at the convention, they don’t get a choice. Each is "bound" to a particular candidate.

Trump won most of the primaries and caucuses, so he has a clear majority of the bound delegates — more than enough to be nominated on the first ballot.

But these delegates are also actual people. And because it's common for states to select their delegates through obscure or arcane processes that have absolutely no connection to the primaries, it’s possible that many of those actual people bound for Trump don’t like Trump very much at all.

Furthermore, Trump’s delegates are only even bound for the final nomination vote. Beforehand — say, on rules votes — they’re perfectly free to vote however they like. They can even vote to approve a rule that would unbind everyone.

The Free the Delegates supporters are hoping that if the rules were changed and every delegate was freed to follow his or her "conscience," many of those formerly bound Trump delegates would abandon him. And their best chance of making that happen is, naturally, through the rules committee.

How the rules committee works

Kendal Unruh, a rules committee member from Colorado, is heading the Free the Delegates effort.
Michael Reaves/The Denver Post via Getty

A key thing to understand about the Republican Convention is that, in theory, the 2,472 delegates are sovereign. They can essentially do whatever they want. If they don’t like a rule, they can simply vote to change it, suspend it, or ignore it. No higher body can overrule what they choose to do.

But since it’s difficult for a couple thousand people to have a conversation, the delegates have, er, delegated the nitty-gritty of rulemaking to the Convention Committee on Rules and Order of Business.

Each delegation — from all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia — got to choose two of its own delegates to sit on the committee, making for 112 delegates on the rules committee in total. They will meet on Thursday and Friday in Cleveland to hammer out what the rules should look like.

This year’s committee is a hodgepodge of notable names, party fundraisers, and obscure local figures or activists — Ballotpedia has a helpful list of who they all are. Sen. Mike Lee and his wife, Sharon Lee, have Utah’s two spots, while New Jersey’s went to Chris Christie’s consigliere and the wife of Trump’s deputy campaign manager. Legendary conservative activist Morton Blackwell has a Virginia slot, and former US Senate candidate Linda McMahon has a Connecticut slot.

Another rules committee member, schoolteacher Kendal Unruh of Colorado, is heading the Free the Delegates effort aimed at taking down Trump. Unruh has said Trump is unelectable, unprincipled, and "not a Republican." She told the Associated Press last month that she was trying to "save the party," because "if Trump is the nominee, we truly believe it's the end of our party."

Now, whatever rules the committee agrees on will still have to be approved by a vote of the full convention. But it’s possible for even a minority on the committee to make an impact. That’s because if a proposal in the rules committee fails to pass but gets support from at least a quarter of committee members — 28 members — that amendment can be the subject of a "minority report," and get a vote from the full convention next week.

The first question is whether Free the Delegates has 28 rules committee votes

Will Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) support freeing the delegates?
Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty

Last time around, the 2012 Republican convention drafted a set of rules meant to govern the primary process and the 2016 convention, and these rules have since been modified a few times by the RNC. These rules cover everything from the binding of delegates to how disputes over credentials will be settled.

So when the committee meets, it will consider and vote on various proposals for amending these rules — including one that would "unbind" the delegates.

Now, to actually approve a rules change, a majority of the rules committee — 57 of its 112 members — would have to vote in favor of it. And most people believe the Dump Trumpers aren’t even close to this total for the delegate unbinding amendment.

But the threshold for a "minority report" to be sent to the full convention — just 28 rules members — is easier to reach. Indeed, Unruh has claimed she already has enough private commitments from rules committee members to get there. And there are rumblings that Lee, a staunch conservative who’s on the committee and had supported Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, could give the effort a high-profile boost.

There’s a lot of skepticism about whether Unruh’s vote count is accurate. But if she is right, Trump could face the embarrassing spectacle of a vote from the full convention on whether delegates should be unbound.

Still, even if they come up with the 28 votes, the full convention vote isn’t guaranteed to happen; all sorts of procedural shenanigans could conceivably take place at the convention or in the rules committee to block such a vote.

And even if the measure does come up for a vote on the convention floor, it would then need to win support from a majority of delegates — 1,237 of the 2,472 who will be in attendance. That’s a very tall order indeed, particularly when it’s far from clear where unbinding the delegates would lead. Who would replace Trump on the ticket if he were ousted?

The delegates can block Trump’s VP nominee ... if they want to. But they probably won’t want to.

John McCain really wanted Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2008, but he was too afraid of a delegate revolt to pull the trigger.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty

With the Free the Delegates effort looking so likely to fail, some Trump critics have instead started to wonder if they should set their sights on something more attainable: the vice presidency.

Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed News recently reported that Free the Delegates backers were exploring the possibility of rejecting Trump’s VP pick to instead nominate someone they viewed as an authentic conservative — an "arranged marriage," as one source described it to Gray.

Gray’s piece describes various potential rules changes that are being floated, which could conceivably help smooth this scenario in one way or another.

Those rules proposals don’t really seem to matter very much, because the big picture is that the delegates are actually already free to vote however they want for the vice presidential nomination.

In the modern era, they’ve always fallen behind whomever the presidential nominee has selected — but that’s just a norm. There’s no formal rule saying they have to do so.

Indeed, John McCain considered picking Sen. Joe Lieberman, a pro-choice independent, as his running mate in 2008. But he abandoned the idea because of the possibility that pro-life delegates would revolt and reject his pick. A similar issue could come up if Trump picks, say, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who seems to be unsure whether he is pro-life or pro-choice.

If Trump nominates a notable Republican in good standing, though, it again seems extremely unlikely that 1,237 delegates would so boldly break with tradition and reject his pick. Trump would surely be furious at the slight, and the party would be embroiled in another divisive controversy just when its leaders were trying to unite around Trump.

In one sense, then, the recent chatter about deposing Trump’s VP pick really seems to me to be a sign that #NeverTrump has lost. They failed to stop Trump from winning the primaries, they’re likely to fail in their efforts to change the rules to stop him, and they’re likely to fail to undercut Trump’s VP choice too.

But in another sense, it’s encouraging that some Republican delegates are at least trying to prevent their party from being hijacked by Trump’s demagoguery. Not everyone is putting partisanship and the goal of defeating Hillary Clinton above principle. So it will be very interesting to see just how much support they have.