It’s been one week since Donald Trump assumed the mantle of presumptive Republican nominee. Over the last seven days, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has called for unity in the party, and has even convinced a number of prominent Republicans who’d voiced reservations about Trump to fall in line behind the party’s nominee. Still, there are some Trump supporters who fear shadowy party bosses are plotting to steal the nomination out from under him at the convention in July.
On Tuesday, Trump operative Roger Stone warned the stealth effort is already underway. “A motion to unbind all delegates, along with many other underhanded strategies, is being discussed by the elite of the Republican legal establishment, with the permission (if under not the instruction) of Speaker Paul Ryan,” Stone wrote.
And while there may be an appetite among the surviving #NeverTrump-ers on Twitter and in other corners of the Internet to block Trump’s nomination, there isn’t much evidence of the kind of vast conspiracy to which Stone refers. There’s really only one prominent member of the RNC publicly advocating for a change to the party’s rules: a pool-supply salesman from North Dakota named Curly Haugland.
Forget everything you’ve been taught about the primary process, Haugland says. Forget everything you’ve heard about poll numbers, delegate math, broad or narrow “paths” to victory, the demographics of individual voting blocs in certain districts and states. None of that, as far as he is concerned, matters when it comes to the Republican nomination for president.
All that matters are rules, and the RNC’s rules, according to Haugland — who has pored over them with painstaking attention to detail — offer a surprisingly large amount of leeway when it comes to how the 2,472 Republican delegates must act in Cleveland come July.
“The Democratic Party does bind its delegates to the primary results, but the Republican Party, since its very inception, has insisted that we trust our delegates to be intelligent enough to make an informed decision,” Haugland says. “That’s why we delegate the responsibility to those folks to go to the convention.”
For the last ten years or so, about as long has he’s sat on the RNC’s rules committee, Haugland has been advocating for the rights of delegates to vote their conscience at the convention — rights he says are guaranteed by the party’s rules. His position had been mostly ignored and dismissed by his fellow party members until this year, when they were forced to confront — thanks to Trump — the fact that what they want, and what the primary voters want, are sometimes at odds.
In March, as talk of a contested convention was revving up, Haugland wrote a letter to all RNC members explaining that, contrary to popular opinion, delegates are not bound on the first ballot to vote for the candidate selected by voters in their state or district. “NEWS FLASH: All Republican Delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention are Unbound!” he wrote.
In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. The 2012 RNC rules do, in fact, say that delegates are bound by presidential preference votes in their state, and that the votes of any delegate who votes otherwise will not be recognized. But those rules expire on July 18th, the first day of 2016 convention.
The 2016 RNC rules will be decided at a meeting of the rules committee one week before the convention. That’s where Haugland will lobby for the removal of language that binds delegates to state votes.
A change like that wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2012, the rules committee added a provision, called 40(b), saying a candidate must win a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be considered for the nomination. The rule was designed to prevent Ron Paul from upstaging Mitt Romney with a speaking spot at that year’s convention. A similar ad hoc adjustment was made four years earlier, in 2008, when the rules said candidates needed to win at least five states to secure a coveted speaking slot.
Haugland’s idea that delegates are supposed to be unbound goes back to 1976, the year of the last nearly contested convention, when President Gerald Ford, worried that delegates would desert him in favor of rival Ronald Reagan, proposed a rule binding delegates to vote according to the primary results.
“The convention adopted that rule, and, for the 1976 convention, the delegates were bound according to the party rules to vote according to the primaries,” Haugland says. But it didn’t last: “In 1980, that rule was promptly rescinded.”
Both the 2008 and 2012 versions of the RNC rules refer to the binding of delegates, but, as Haugland notes, the versions that predate them did not. Haugland insists that the language referring to the binding of delegates today — the language that he says appeared before the 2008 convention — was inserted in error. And he’d like to see that corrected in July.
Given its history, it’s not so farfetched to imagine the rules committee making a last-minute change that dramatically alters the contours of the nomination fight shortly before delegates convene in Cleveland.
But, as Haugland admits somewhat sheepishly, any change that is made this year won’t really matter unless there are candidates running who might benefit from it. Now that Cruz and Kasich are out, there aren’t.
“My project was predicated on having more than one person interested in being a candidate at the convention,” Haugland says. But, he says, giving hope to #NeverTrump-ers everywhere, “There’s nothing in the rules that precludes somebody else from showing up and saying, ‘How bout considering me?'”
Priebus, for his part, indicated on Friday he’s doubtful that someone other than Trump will be the GOP nominee. “Nothing’s impossible,” he said, but “it’s highly, highly doubtful.”