Donald Trump’s campaign, feeling it can ill afford anything less than a first-ballot win at the presidential nominating convention in July, privately warned the GOP this month not to attempt to change its rules this late in the game.
Mr. Trump’s warning appears to have worked, at least for now. Several influential leaders on the Republican National Committee withdrew plans to lower the nomination threshold and make it easier for other candidates to challenge Mr. Trump at the convention.
“What this demonstrated is the sway Trump has come to have over a reluctant GOP establishment,” said GOP elections analyst Jim Ellis, who was political adviser to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The fight played out at the RNC’s winter meeting, held on the sidelines of the GOP debate in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this month.
Under current rules, for a candidate to claim delegates at the convention, he or she must have won a majority of delegates from at least eight states. But some powerful members of the RNC wanted to lower the bar to accept candidates who won a plurality of delegates in just five states so that more candidates than Mr. Trump could qualify for the nomination.
Mr. Trump’s campaign said he wouldn’t tolerate a rules change midgame, when all the serious candidates had, or at least should have, planned their strategy based on the eight-state rule, which has been in effect since 2012.
Warned of a nuclear blowback from Mr. Trump, and fearful of being seen as attempting to aide establishment-backed candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the rules change proponents backed down.
Mr. Trump’s organization has been collecting the names, emails and phone numbers of the thousands of people showing up at his rallies, and using that information to try to make sure they turn out to vote in caucuses and primaries.
But veteran operatives doubt Mr. Trump has enough experienced operatives to counsel his supporters to make sure they also get elected as delegates to the Cleveland convention.
The vast majority of delegates will go to the convention bound to vote for a specific candidate on the first ballot — but if it goes to a second ballot, they are then free to vote their own choice.
That means that if Mr. Trump doesn’t win on a first ballot, he’d be at a disadvantage versus Mr. Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz or any of the other candidates whose supporters got themselves elected as delegates. Mr. Cruz and Mr. Bush are thought to have organizations capable of getting their loyalists elected as delegates.
Though it’s been 40 years since a convention convened without knowing the nominee, analysts say this year could be different given the size of the GOP field and party rules that award delegates from some states based on the proportion of votes. The most delegates would go to the candidate with a plurality of the vote, but others could still walk away with a hefty chunk of delegates in their tally if they do well enough.
The eight-state rule was designed to ensure that only major donor-approved, establishment-anointed candidates would qualify. The rule has backfired.
The RNC, though, had a second close call with its handling of the rules. At a meeting of the RNC’s Rules Committee in Charleston, Morton Blackwell, a longtime committeeman from Virginia, proposed allowing the convention secretary to record and announce vote totals for all candidates, whether or not they met the eight-state rule.
A hush fell over the room when Massachusetts RNC member Ron Kaufman, a perpetual GOP establishment enforcer, stepped to the microphone and announced that, for the first time ever, he was supporting a Blackwell proposal.
It seemed as if the grass-roots RNC members and the establishment members were united on this one issue. A confused Rules Committee membership passed the Blackwell proposal.
But Georgia attorney and RNC member Randy Evans, a Newt Gingrich ally, said the move wasn’t innocuous. He said it would have the effect of overturning the eight-state rule because a candidate could conceivably win a majority of delegates yet not be eligible for the nomination because he didn’t clear the eight-state rule.
If Mr. Blackwell’s proposal had passed, the nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates, thousands of guests and the millions of TV viewers would hear that a candidate had won a majority but would not be named the nominee because he hadn’t made the initial cut.
That would throw the convention into chaos, forcing it perhaps to vote to suspend its own rules and award the nomination to the majority delegate winner even though he was never legally entitled, said Oregon RNC member Solomon Yue.
But changing RNC nomination rules in the middle of its own convention would be illegal under the convention’s own rules, according to constitutional issues attorney and Rules Committee Special Counsel James Bopp Jr. That in turn would invite the Democrats to file legal challenges to any nomination the Republicans made, Mr. Bopp said.
Before any Democrat could file a lawsuit, changing the nomination rule would also likely trigger all-out war between Mr. Trump and his millions of GOP supporters and the national party and its newly crowned nominee — the absolute last thing the party establishment wanted going into the fall general election.
Mr. Bopp spoke up at the RNC meeting, saying he agreed with Mr. Evans’ concerns. Rules Committee Chairman Bruce Ash of Arizona called for a new vote that effectively nullified the Blackwell proposal.