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What the Colorado delegate walkout achieved

Signatures are displayed demanding for a roll call vote on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicks off on July 18.
Signatures are displayed demanding for a roll call vote on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicks off on July 18.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During the first day of the Republican National Convention, the big story prior to the primetime addresses was a floor fight over rules. Colorado delegates were among the leaders of an anti-Trump dissent movement, and ultimately that delegation walked out of the convention in protest. But what did they actually accomplish?

The key thing for understanding this, and indeed for understanding almost any convention floor fight, is that fights over rules tend to be proxy wars for fights over candidates. In this case, the insurrection was led by delegates who are opposed to the nomination of Donald Trump. While they had little chance of actually derailing his nomination, they wanted a public display of dissent on the floor.

Colorado's Republican delegates, you'll recall, were elected through a caucus and convention system that famously had no initial presidential vote choice. As a result, nearly all of their delegates ended up being supporters of Ted Cruz. This made the state a natural place for an anti-Trump insurgency to emerge.

Yesterday's argument concerned a proposed convention rules change that would have freed delegates to vote their consciences rather than be bound to candidate pledges. Were that change to go through, it's conceivable that Trump would come up short of a majority in an actual roll call. Even if he had prevailed, such a roll call vote would have demonstrated the lack of party unity and support for the nominee. Trump supporters and convention organizers were keen to avoid such an outcome.

Under convention rules, the delegates could consider a rules change if the majority of delegates of seven states signed a petition. Anti-Trump delegates produced petitions from nine states. Rep. Steve Womack from Arkansas, then presiding over the convention, sought first to ignore the petitions and requests for a roll call vote, and dissenting delegates protested loudly. These included Virginia delegate and former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who notably took off his credentials and threw them on the ground. Womack left the stage for a while, and then returned to announce that three states had withdrawn their petitions, meaning the dissent had failed.

At this point, much of the Colorado delegation, including "Free the Delegates" movement founder Kendal Unruhfled the room, and many in the Iowa delegation joined them. For a while, the convention images broadcast to viewers were just empty seats, with angry shouts of "roll call vote" the only sounds. But when the primetime speeches started, the absent delegates had returned to the floor.

This insurrection, of course, failed in its specific goals of changing the convention rules to make it easier to defeat Trump's nomination bid. But on the broader political goal, it succeeded. Dissidents wanted to show their numbers. In a convention whose main objective was to display unity behind Trump, the dissidents wanted to demonstrate division and to show that Trump does not speak for all of them.

In this, they won. It may not have been the most memorable of the evening's moments, but in terms of understanding the nomination, it was one of the most important.

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