The possibility of a contested convention has put the spotlight on the unbound delegates who could determine the Republican presidential nominee.
Several unbound delegates told The Hill they are beginning to feel the pressure now that party leaders are talking about a convention scenario that could prevent Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC Pentagon chief: 'I don’t have any issues with the press' Kasich: The media is 'an important part of democracy' MORE from winning the nomination.
Under Republican Party rules, delegates from states that hold presidential primaries must be bound by those results. Those delegates must back their candidate for at least the first ballot at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July.
But many delegates — potentially close to 200 — are not bound by those rules.
A handful of states and territories — Colorado and North Dakota among them — chose not to hold a vote at all, which means most of their delegates will arrive at the convention free to cast their ballot for any candidate.
And in some states, the delegates who were bound to candidates no longer in the race — such as Jeb Bush and Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Top Dem: GOP is terrified of Trump McConnell on Trump: 'I'm not a fan of the daily tweets' MORE — are unbound as well.
Trump could still collect the 1,237 delegates needed to win the contest outright and avoid a contested convention. But if he came up short, rivals Ted CruzTed CruzTrump to interview four candidates for national security adviser Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC Reports: Petraeus off the list, Trump down to three candidates to replace Flynn MORE and John Kasich could win enough delegates to block Trump from a first-ballot victory.
Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Graham: Ryan tax plan won’t get 10 votes in the Senate MORE (R-Wis.) last week said a contested convention is becoming more likely.
If Trump is short of 1,237 bound delegates, the unbound delegates could tip the balance in his favor on the first ballot — or they could vote for another candidate and usher in a contested convention, when the vast majority of delegates would be free to pick any candidate.
Trump has argued if he’s the closest to the magic number, then the delegates should be obligated to give him the nomination.
But that’s not how some unbound delegates see it.
“I’m a purist — the rules shouldn’t be bent for him or anyone else,” said Leslie Tassin Sr., an unbound delegate from Louisiana.
Tassin was previously bound to Rubio, but now that the Florida senator has dropped out of the race, he’ll likely head to the convention able to side with the candidate of his choice.
He’s among a handful of unbound delegates who are known at this point in the process. Most will be selected at state conventions over the summer.
State bylaws require House, the unbound delegate in Colorado, to stay neutral in the race until he casts a ballot at the convention in July. Still, he offered some clues as to the factors that will shape his decision.
Like Tassin, House said that even if one of the candidates arrives with a strong plurality of delegates, he wouldn’t feel obligated to push that candidate across the finish line solely by virtue of them coming the closest.
“I’m looking at whether the candidate is a conservative and whether they can win in November,” he said. “I’m voting for the candidate that meets that criteria, period.”
House also said he will likely only support a candidate who is still running for president, rather than a “white knight” candidate, like Mitt Romney or Ryan, who could be put forward in later ballots.
“That would take away from the candidates that have earned it, and right now that’s Cruz, Kasich and Trump,” House said.
Some of the unbound delegates have already attracted media attention.
A former Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE adviser and GOP operative in Michigan named John Yob has drawn scrutiny for moving to the Virgin Islands earlier this year with his wife and another couple.
Yob has written a book on contested conventions, and after a legal battle over his residency in the U.S. territory, was elected as an unbound delegate to the convention along with the other three.
John Canegata, the state chairman for the Virgin Islands Republican Party, told Michigan Live that he thinks Yob and company moved to the territory to gain influence and mettle with the process.
“What are these guys really trying to do?” he said.
Yob is not the only unbound delegate who has been the subject of controversy.
Curly Haugland is an unbound delegate from North Dakota who is one of a select group of 168 Republican National Committee members who will be vital in determining the rules at the convention in July.
Haugland made headlines last week for saying in an interview on CNBC that the sole responsibility for selecting the nominee belongs to the delegates, whether bound or unbound, and that the “media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination.”
In an interview with The Hill, Haugland said those comments have provoked an avalanche of online bullying and threats directed towards him and his family.
“That was one of the sadder days of my political life,” Haugland said.
But Haugland says he did not misspeak. He argues the party rules state that delegates are free to vote as they please — even on the first ballot.
Party leaders, Haugland said, have “taken a worthless nominating process run by a private political party that has no marketable value and spun it into gold by creating primaries and caucuses and pretending they matter.”
By Haugland’s estimation, every convention starts with a clean slate of rules, and so there is no requirement yet that the delegates be bound to any particular candidate. By his view, every delegate is free to vote as they see fit.
Delegates at Republican conventions typically ratify the rules before they begin. And while some of the rules may change, few Republicans believe the rules committee would vote to unbind delegates before the first ballot.
“I’m trying to educate the delegates about this so they know precisely their rights and responsibilities and duties, and I’m defending the rights of party members to choose the nominee, rather than surrendering that responsibility to voters in open primaries where anyone can participate,” Haugland said. “We have the right to defend our party, which is what I’m trying to do, and it’s not very popular in some circles.”
“This idea that delegates have been bound ever since the 1976 convention is an illusion,” he said.
At the 1976 GOP convention, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan came in below the delegate threshold. Ford won on the first ballot with support from unbound delegates.
Tassin was on hand as an aide to the Louisiana delegation then.
“It was just like an LSU-Alabama football game, and every night we played a quarter,” Tassin said.
“The Reagan delegates were disappointed and sorry that he lost, but we came home and we supported Gerald Ford,” he said. “That’s what my hope is for this convention.”