At this point, the outcome of the Republican primary will depend largely on whether Donald Trump can win enough delegates in the primaries to avoid a contested convention. He'll need 1,237 delegates to pull this off, and while the race is very close, that target is well within Trump’s grasp. But hold up — Donald Trump could still lose even if he gets the most delegates.
It all comes down to one simple fact: Republicans can change the delegate rules they want to. This could play out in a number of ways, but the takeaway is that the GOP can easily impose a rule change allowing some, or all, of the Republican delegates to vote for whomever they please at the convention. If this happens, the delegates Trump has won will be free to support another candidate, and if enough of them jump ship, he won’t get the nomination. But what would this look like? And who, precisely, would be changing the rules?
In the Republican Party, approving the final delegate rules is a three-step process. First, Republican National Committee members vote collectively to adopt a set of rules for the convention. These rules determine how the delegates can and can’t vote when it comes time to nominate a candidate. It’s unlikely that the rules would be changed at this stage, though, as it would give the impression that GOP elites were bucking the will of Republican voters. And because RNC members are the very definition of party insiders, that would be an accurate impression.
Next, the RNC Rules Committee votes to approve the rules. The Rules Committee is comprised of 112 delegates — two from each U.S. state and territory — out of the 2,472 total Republican delegates who will attend the convention, and they have the option of changing the convention rules however they see fit.
Lastly, the entire pool of Republican delegates will vote on the rules at the start of the convention itself. They get the final say, and can impose whatever changes they please. So, if a majority of them voted to unbind all of the delegates, then the last few months of primaries and caucuses would immediately be rendered irrelevant, and the delegates could vote for whomever they wanted.
Let’s be entirely clear: If this happens, the Republican delegates will be voting to unbind themselves. That seems highly undemocratic, and guess what? It is! But the Republican Party isn’t a governmental organization. It’s a private corporation that sets its own internal rules, and as such, has no obligation to operate democratically.
Of course, just because the delegates could take this route doesn’t mean that they will. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, a large majority of Republican voters believe that the candidate who gets the most delegates in the primaries and caucuses should become the nominee. That might be enough to convince Republican delegates to steer clear of any last-minute rules changes.
Then again, it might not. This election has disproved the conventional wisdom so many times that I’ve lost count, and if Donald Trump can win the most delegates in a Republican primary, it’s entirely possible that those delegates could enact their own set of rules at the eleventh hour.