CLEVELAND — The opening session of the Republican convention briefly dissolved into chaos Monday afternoon, as pro-Trump and anti-Trump delegates shouted competing chants at each other and brought proceedings to a halt.
Shouts of "Roll call vote!" and "Dump Trump" rang out in front of an empty stage, as anti-Trump delegates, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, demanded a full roll call vote on what the convention’s rules should be — rules that, in theory, could have affected whether Trump could be blocked from getting nomination. The Colorado delegation even walked out over the fight. And pro-Trump delegates attempted to drown out the protests by yelling, "USA!"
Now, Trump’s nomination never appeared to be seriously in doubt. Even if a roll call vote had been taken, Trump’s forces were expected to win easily.
Still, a roll call vote would have spotlighted divisions within the party. And there was at least the possibility that anti-Trump forces could have prevailed in voting down the current rules — which might have imperiled Trump’s nomination. So pro-Trump forces wanted to avoid a vote altogether.
In the end, the Trump campaign got its way. They effectively rammed the rules through without a roll call vote, removing one of the final remaining obstacles to the billionaire’s nomination. But it sure looked messy.
A potential rules change was the last, long-shot way to block Trump’s nomination
The backstory here is that the only plausible way Trump’s nomination could be blocked at this point is if the convention’s delegates change the rules to "unbind" themselves from the results of primary and caucus contests. In other words, this rules change would let delegates that Trump had won in the primaries be free to vote for other candidates.
So over the past few weeks, anti-Trump delegates like Kendal Unruh of Colorado had launched the "Free the Delegates" movement, which argued for just such a rules change.
But when the convention’s rules committee met last week to propose rules for this week's convention, the Free the Delegates effort fell embarrassingly short. The package that came out of the committee was basically what the Trump campaign and the RNC wanted — they even added an added clarification that delegates are indeed bound, as Josh Putnam writes.
This rules package still had to be approved by the full convention, however. And theoretically, if delegations from seven states requested a roll call vote, in writing, one would have to be held.
So throughout the early afternoon, anti-Trump forces tried to line up support from enough delegates to make this happen. And they ended up getting written commitments from at least nine states — more than necessary.
Or so they thought.
What happened on the convention floor
In theory, the Republican convention delegates govern themselves. A majority of delegates can do whatever it wants.
In practice, though, things are often run with a heavy hand by whoever is chairing proceedings at the time. Full roll call votes are lengthy and spotlight divisions within the party, so the powers that be prefer to avoid them. Often, the chair just tries to "gavel through" whatever he or she wants.
So when Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas took the podium Monday afternoon, he asked delegates to simply yell out "yea" or "nay" about whether the rules should be adopted. And at first, he seemed to completely ignore the many, many delegates who clearly yelled out "nay," trying to gavel the rules through "without objection" anyway.
Womack then left the stage, and the next speaker was announced. But this is when anti-Trump delegates erupted in protest, chanting, "Dump Trump," and, "Roll call vote," and proceedings ground to a halt. The stage was left empty.
After several minutes of this, Womack returned to the stage for what amounted to a do-over. He recognized a delegate who asked for a roll call vote on the rules.
And then Womack dropped the bomb. Nine state delegations had submitted signatures requesting a full roll call vote on the rules, he said — but then three of them withdrew those requests. (It’s still not clear why this actually happened or even which delegations withdrew.)
So since anti-Trump forces fell short of the seven state delegations they needed, there would be no roll call vote. "The chair has found insufficient support for the request for the vote," Womack said. And that was that.
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The delegates who want to stop Trump are a loud minority
To Trump critics, this seems like an outrageous flouting of procedure, likely due to behind-the-scenes arm twisting and backroom deals.
And they have a great point! There’s been a distinct lack of transparency to all this. For a while, it wasn't even clear which delegations had changed their minds. (According to the Examiner's Timothy Carney, it was Maine, Iowa, and Minnesota — and the District of Columbia — that got cold feet.)
But from the perspective of Trump’s team and the RNC, these anti-Trump forces merely consisted of an obstructionist minority of delegates trying to gum up convention business and embarrass the nominee. Pushing them out of the way seemed entirely justifiable to keep the convention on track and on message.
And indeed, most convention attendees I chatted with in the Quicken Loans Arena earlier in the day were perfectly happy with a Trump nomination, even those who said they had supported Cruz.
Furthermore, if the delegates’ will truly were flouted by what Womack did, we’d expect more delegations to walk out like Colorado’s did. Instead, after the rebellion was put down, those delegations stayed put. The convention moved on to other topics, and though scattered shouts of "roll call vote" occasionally rang out, it seemed that most attendees were ready to move on.
Updated with the list of state delegations that dropped their objections at the last minute.