Donald Trump (Credit: Fox News)

6 reasons to believe Donald Trump could really blow this thing

The GOP creeps closer to a contested convention with each primary. And in that scenario, all bets are off


Steven Rosenfeld
April 12, 2016 1:00PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Donald Trump may be bungling the biggest deal of his life.

Beyond blowups such as saying women who get abortions should be punished and then backtracking, or staff chaos leading him to hire notorious political hit man to take over, or threats by other thugs they’ll intimidate GOP convention delegates who might want another nominee, comes a stunning assessment from conservative columnist George Will.

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Writing in the National Review, Will describes how Trump's team is not just utterly ignorant of the ways the states choose national convention delegates, he says Ted Cruz is out-negotiating Trump by building relationships with delegates to vote for Cruz.

“The nomination process ‘is a multilevel Rubik’s Cube,’​ says Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager. ‘Trump thought it was a golf ball—you just had to whack it,’” Will writes. “He knows nothing about the art of the political deal.”

The most revealing part of his article is not swipes like these, but observing Cruz tracking and cultivating relationships with delegates before Trump even knew that had to do that. That’s quite a contrast with Trump thug Roger Stone last week telling a radio host, “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal.” It's also why Trump hired Manafort Brothers, whose past clients include dictators outside the U.S., and which this weekend breezily predicted that Trump will become the nominee with early June's California and New Jersey primaries.

Just a week ago, Trump's team was saying whoever won the most delegates—even if it's short of the 1,237 needed—should be the nominee. But according to Curly Haugland, a Republican National Committee member from North Dakota and a longtime Republican National Convention Rules Committee member, who was just reappointed to that role for 2016, Trump’s team, like many national political reporters covering the race, doesn’t know the process or is intentionally distorting it.

“Most people in this discussion are talking and not referring to any specific facts,” said Haugland. “I’m not trying to spin it one way or the other. It might play in somebody’s favor or at somebody else’s expense… There’s no such thing as [2016 candidates] releasing delegates. That’s the whole point. Nobody [national convention delegates] is bound in the first place… Nobody owns anything. They didn’t win a trove of delegates. If anything, you’ve won bragging rights.”

What follows are six key points from Haugland about how the 2016 nominating process will unfold at the Republican convention. It starts with the convention’s Rules Committee convening days before the opening gavel, where, under Robert’s Rules of Order, they will adopt rules for the proceeding. Only this body and those rules will govern how the GOP will pick its 2016 nominee.

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Pay attention to what he says, because it more than suggests Trump’s threats over others “stealing” the nom are a bullying tactic from a team that’s unlikely to win on the first ballot, despite Manafort's assertions to the contrary.

1. Experts don’t know the rules or are distorting them. “People are talking without reading. Either that or they are deliberately misleading—one or the other,” said Haugland. “When people start reading the rules correctly, they understand that each convention adopts its own rules before they start. They start with the convention rules from 2012 as a temporary rule, and then we work from there.”

Last fall, Haugland spent an hour describing how the template that is the startingline for 2016 was a document created for the 2012 convention. It contains three sections and has internal contradictions. Some of it concerned electing national party officials. Some of it dictated how that convention was run. And some of it concerned how the 2016 primaries and caucuses were to be run. His main point was that almost all of it expires once the convention Rules Committee meets in July—and the clauses binding delegates to candidates do not apply once the convention opens. In fact, he said the GOP’s national conventions have not had rules binding the delegates to the results of state primaries and caucuses since 1976. (Outlets like the Washington Post are reporting otherwise.)

2. The delegates are not bound to any candidate. “The rules in 1976 bound the delegates to the results of the primary votes. It wasn’t for the first or second result, it was for however many ballots it took,” he said. “In that case, it was only one ballot anyway because there were only two contenders… In 1980, that rule was immediately rescinded. That’s the important part. You have to look at it as if there’s an on-off switch on binding. The switch was on for one convention in the history of the Republican Party; that was 1976. The switch is currently in the off position. There is no binding.”

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“There’s two factions in the party,” he said. “The primary shall choose the nominee. Or the convention delegates should. I’m saying the rules favor the convention delegates.” He continued, “The only reason winner-take-all has even came into play is by custom or practice—but the rules don’t allow it… The votes in the primary elections mean nothing except custom. With Robert’s Rules, when a custom and rule conflict, the custom falls away.”

3. The mainstream media is getting this wrong, because they don’t want upset voters. The mainstream media and many scholars are reluctant to say this, Haugland said, because it would mean that the primaries and caucuses were advisory, not official in a legally binding way. (The New York Times ran a Sundaystory alluding to this frustration.) But that is true because the Republican Party is a private body, even as it nominates candidates for public office and uses the government's election apparatus.

“First of all, we owe nothing to the voters in the primaries—we as a party,” Haugland said. “We don’t owe them anything except to maybe pay attention to how the vote turned out for whatever reason. We have no duty or obligation to do anything according to those votes.” Haugland quickly added that the convention Rules Committee could adopt rules acknowledging primary and caucus season votes and delegates. In fact, he said he planned to propose something along those very lines, which may or may not be adopted by the 2016 convention Rules Committee.

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“We do have the opportunity and I think the ability to respect and honor those people who participated if and only if we allow every delegate that was awarded according to those primaries and caucuses to be represented at the convention,” he argued. “I think there were one or two candidates that won a single delegate—based on the Iowa results—so those people would be entitled to have a name placed in nomination. And people could vote for them based on that… And every delegate counts.”

“You hear the number 1,237 [delegates to win] all the time. Well, what if without those delegates it’s 1,236?” Haugland asked. “If we’re going to honor all of the participants in the primaries, the first ballot would have eight names on it. And I am going to propose that at the convention. How could it be any more fair?”

Beyond Haugland’s proposal is a larger point. Many of the rules adopted for the 2012 convention and this year’s nominating season that are being cited to explain what is likely to happen this July will either expire or can be changed. These include lines saying delegates are bound (rule 16) to candidates as states compose their delegations and later ones saying they’re not once they are at the national convention (rule 38), or requiring candidates to win at least eight states to have their names put in nomination. The 2016 convention Rules Committee members like himself will adopt new rules for the convention, he emphasized.

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4. The Republican National Committee doesn’t dictate the convention’s rules. No matter what is in mainstream media, nobody else establishes the convention rules, he said. That includes the Washington-based Republican National Committee, which also has a rules committee—but it isn’t the same as the convention rules panel, Haugland said. Moreover, the RNC can’t do anything to change what will unfold at the convention other than lobby for what they want enacted.

“The Republican National Committee has no ability to change any rules between now and the convention. They can merely make a recommendation to the convention rules committee,” he said. “In fact, I just got elected to it yesterday. Each state’s delegation elects from their own delegation people to serve on convention committees. The convention rules committee is a man and a woman from each state, which is twice as large as the RNC’s Rules Committtee, which consists of one person from each state.”

5. The Republican Party can pick any nominee. In recent decades, the party has had a presumptive nominee, so these variables have not come into play. But what is likely to unfold in Cleveland is the delegates will keep voting their conscience until a candidate is able to get the 1,237 votes required, he said. It’s not a mystery, he said, but follows Roberts Rules as the candidates drop out.

“Nobody is going to get 50 percent when there are eight candidates there” on the first ballot, Haugland said. “After that, then somebody drops out. I don’t know, maybe one, two, maybe three will drop out. Maybe more. And the delegates, they [the candidates] don’t own them. That’s the whole point. Nobody owns any delegates… Then the delegates vote again.”

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“They are bound by nothing,” he said, restating his main point. “They are bound by their judgment. That’s why we delegate to people the authority to speak for us and to represent us, because it involves decision-making and it involves judgment.”

6. The delegates are not going to adopt a binding rule, either. Haugland also said it was unthinkable that the convention rules committee would bind delegates to results of the state primaries and caucuses. That would mean the delegates in Cleveland would be surrendering their decision-making authority, he said. Also, because many states allow independents and Democrats to vote in the Republican primary or caucuses, such binding would also dilute the choice of the party’s faithful.

“The 2016 convention would have to adopt a rule if they want to do any binding—like I said, turn the switch on—and impose binding,” he said. “The likelihood of that is nil in my view, because that would mean that those delegates are going to have to sit there in Cleveland and make a conscious decision to say, ‘You know, I don’t think I’m smart enough to make this decision. I think I’ll let the independents and Democrats from New Hampshire do it for me.’ Or the other 20 open primary states, like Wisconsin. Open primary state—why should we care what the primary voters in an open primary have to say, when we’re the Republican Party?”

Back to Ted Cruz

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Haugland’s analysis is provocative for many reasons. Inside the RNC, he is considered an outsider and a burr in the saddle of its Washington power brokers. But he has been one of the few Republicans who have served on the convention Rules Committee for election after election. In his curmudgeonly way, he’s reminding the party that it has the means to deny Trump—or Cruz—the nomination.

If Trump doesn’t come out of the 2016 nominating season clearing the 1,237-delegate threshold, the GOP will have to make a choice between inevitably controversial decisions. If it goes with Trump, the party may not only lose the fall election, but destroy its brand and splinter. If it embraces Haugland’s path, with multiple ballots, Trump’s supporters could leave and support an independent candidacy, as he’s previously threatened.

George Will says Cruz is anticipating this exact outcome. His National Reviewreport says that Cruz’s campaign fully understands the delegate rules and dynamic Haugland has laid out. Cruz is cultivating relationships for delegates to break for him once they arrive at the convention, whereas Trump is threatening to unleash tantrums and mob rule if he doesn’t get his way.

“People here at Ted Cruz’s campaign headquarters are meticulously preparing to win a contested convention, if there is one,” Will writes. “Because Donald Trump is a low-energy fellow, Cruz will be positioned to trounce him in Cleveland, where Trump’s slide toward earned oblivion would accelerate during a second ballot.”

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In other words, keep in mind Haugland’s words about the rules and procedures governing the Republican Convention as you watch what unfolds in coming weeks. Sloppiness and inattention by Trump may lead the self-proclaimed master negotiator to blow the biggest deal of his life.

By the way, that’s what happened in Colorado on Friday, when confusion by the Trump staff over the process enabled the Cruz campaign to sweep up a few more unanticipated state delegates.


Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a national political reporter focusing on democracy issues. He has reported for nationwide public radio networks, websites, and newspapers and produced talk radio and music podcasts. He has written five books, including profiles of campaigns, voter suppression, voting rights guides and a WWII survival story currently being made into a film. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election(Hot Books, March 2018).

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Alternet Brokered Convention Donald Trump John Kasich Ted Cruz

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