Viewpoint

Why there won’t be a contested Republican convention

Ben Carson, left, and Ted Cruz, right, look on as Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Ben Carson, left, and Ted Cruz, right, look on as Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. AP

Speculation over a contested convention – when no candidate enters with the majority needed for nomination – has picked up steam again. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported last week that Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus met with senior Republicans about procedures, should an open convention develop.

Smart analysts are on board: Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics believes the “most likely scenario is still that no one wins a sufficient number of delegates to claim the nomination,” while Nate Silver puts the odds “at about 20 percent.”

We go through this every time. The RNC is doing its job by preparing for unlikely situations, but it doesn’t mean they will arise.

In short, candidates who are losing drop out. Winnowing works. Yes, three or more candidates could theoretically remain in the contest after the first few events, winning equal (or close to equal) shares of the delegates. But that balance is difficult to achieve: Winners gain momentum, and losers see their resources dry up rapidly.

Besides, any party would be nuts to wait until the party’s nominating convention to try to manipulate the final results. To understand why, let’s look at how that process works.

In a normal year, the winning candidate going into the convention works with the larger party to control everything. This is backed up by the votes of delegates loyal to that candidate.

A contested convention would occur if there is not a majority among the 2,472 state delegates in support of one candidate.

Once the GOP convention begins in Cleveland this summer, the delegates are not beholden to do what the Republican National Committee or any other party group tells them to do. They might be likely to follow the lead of their candidate on any votes over credentials, procedures or platform. But no one can force them to. Some are technically bound to vote as chosen on the first ballot. But with no majority to steer the proceedings toward one candidate, there is no pressure on the delegates to remain loyal to the contender who chose them in the first place.

The results would be unpredictable in such a situation, and could lead to chaos. If there were multiple ballots, it’s unclear what would eventually resolve any impasse. In the old days a handful of party bosses could cut deals and enforce them. Now all 2,472 delegates would be free agents.

If party leaders want to influence what the convention is going to do, their best strategy is to pick a candidate to support, and use their resources to persuade voters to support that candidate.

While they haven’t completed that process yet, it’s well along the way. Only a handful of candidates in the GOP race are likely to survive Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s far more likely we'll have a clear nominee by March 1 than that we won’t have one in July.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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