Presidential races

Republican lawyer paints chaotic scene of contested convention

A former lawyer for the Republican National Committee outlined Monday the chaotic scene that could unfold at a contested Republican convention if no candidate secures the nomination before the party gathers to crown a standard-bearer in Cleveland this July.

In an interview with C-SPAN’s Steve Scully at the network’s headquarters in Washington, GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg described a scene in which delegates would be screaming over one another to be heard from the floor, while backroom deals would be negotiated to seal the nomination for one of the candidates.

In the interview, which The Hill was invited to observe, Ginsburg said a contested convention would impact everything from the mundane nuts and bolts of the convention to the deal-cutting between the campaigns and delegates that could ultimately produce the nominee.

“If there’s not a majority of delegates achieved by any one candidate … you have to ask the question — which first lady speaks on the first night of the convention?” Ginsberg asked. 

“What do you do about keynote address? When do you start the business of voting? Will the convention committees take longer than they historically have … because there are conflicts on those individual committees?”

The delegates and campaigns, Ginsberg said, would furiously lobby the convention chairman — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — from the floor of the convention, provoking the question: “How do I get the chair’s attention on the floor with 2,400 screaming delegates to get a motion I believe needs to be heard?”

And “there will be a lot of deal-cutting” going on behind the scenes, Ginsberg predicted, as the campaigns fight for the loyalty of a small pool of unbound delegates that would grow larger with every passing ballot.

“It will be a new and different phenomenon and a whip operation like we’ve never seen on the floor of a convention,” Ginsberg said.

Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus have acknowledged in recent days that a contested convention is at the very least a possibility. The campaigns and party leaders have begun dusting off their rule-books and hiring delegate experts to prepare for the unexpected.

Candidates need a majority of delegates — at least 1,237 — to win the Republican nomination outright.

GOP front-runner Donald Trump is more than halfway there, with 680 delegates, followed by Ted Cruz, at 424, and John Kasich, at 143. 

Tuesday’s contests in Arizona and Utah could go a long way in determining whether Trump is able to win the nomination before the convention.

Trump will face a stiff test from Cruz in Arizona, the largest winner-take-all state still on the map, where the top finisher will take home 58 delegates. And Trump needs to block Cruz from surpassing the 50-percent threshold in Utah to keep the Texas senator from collecting all 40 of that state’s delegates

If no candidate gets to 1,237 before the convention, it will open the contest up to a series of votes in which the delegates choose the party’s nominee.

On the first ballot, most of the delegates will be bound to a candidate in accordance with the vote from their home-state’s caucus or primary.

That would put the spotlight on the unbound delegates — there could be about 200 — who can support whomever they choose on the first ballot and potentially push one of the candidates across the finish line. 

Some of these unbound delegates are already known, while others will be elected at state conventions this summer.

“The campaigns … will go around to the unbound delegates and try to convince them to vote with them on the first ballot,” Ginsberg said. “Those delegates are going to be extraordinarily popular people, and I expect they will have many visitors to their homes.”

If no candidate reaches a majority on the first ballot, most of the delegates become unbound from their candidate in subsequent votes and can then cast their support to anyone.

“I think campaigns will have to invent terrific new databases to track, contact, know who the delegates can most be persuaded by,” Ginsberg said.

The early stages of this have already begun, as the campaigns have assembled teams meant to elect representatives that support their candidate or marshal the support of unbound delegates.

The byzantine process is the subject of intense speculation, and some are fearful it could open the door for party leaders to steal the nomination from one candidate and give it to another.

That’s particularly a concern in a year when there is a strong contingent of mainstream conservatives looking to stop Trump at any cost.

Trump has predicted there will be “riots” if he arrives at the convention with a plurality of delegates but doesn’t win the nomination.

Ginsberg argued “there are no brokers left in the GOP” to pull something like that off. 

Rather, he said the nomination could be won or lost based on which campaign does the best job of placing sympathetic delegates at the convention and convincing them to stay committed.

That means the campaigns will be applying heavy pressure to delegates behind the scenes as they become free.

“Everything that happens on the floor will be transparent,” Ginsberg said. “If no candidate has a majority of delegates, there will be more private conversations with the unbound delegates. It will be transparent, in the sense of you’ll see the votes, but there will be a lot of deal-cutting and erstwhile deal-cutting not visible until votes are cast.”

The last contested convention took place in 1976, when Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan on the first ballot. Ford then invited Reagan up to the podium to speak alongside him, in a show of unity many Republicans hope can be replicated if the situation arises in 2016.

“A signal of the unity of the party is absolutely crucial,” Ginsberg said. “It can be a positive for the party to have democracy flourishing in public, but you do have to unify things in the end.” 

Tags Donald Trump Paul Ryan Ted Cruz

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