Unconventional #14: Can Republicans really change the rules in Cleveland to block Trump’s nomination?

Andrew Romano West Coast Correspondent
May 16, 2016

Unconventional is Yahoo News’ complete guide to what could be the craziest presidential convention — or conventions — in decades. Here’s what you need to know today.

1. Can Republicans really change the rules in Cleveland to block Trump’s nomination?

In a story titled “Five Ways the Republican Convention Could Still Be Contentious,” Jeremy Peters of the New York Times reported Sunday that at least some Republicans “hostile” to Donald Trump continue to daydream about derailing his nomination at the last minute in Cleveland. How? By changing the rules that govern the party’s nominating process.

Peters went on to outline two possible scenarios. The first, which he labeled the “nuclear option,” could only be “described anonymously” by a rules expert.

“It is tantalizing,” Peters explained, “because it is so simple”:

Mr. Trump could be stopped with just a single-word change requiring the nominee to receive a supermajority of votes at the convention rather than the majority currently required. Mr. Trump, after all, had floated changing majority to plurality when it was not clear he would win the 1,237 delegates he needed.

The second option, according to Peters, will actually be proposed at the convention by a fellow named Curly Haugland.

(In case you missed it, be sure to check out this profile of Haugland, a “stubborn 69-year-old pool-supply magnate” who has become “North Dakota’s top Republican gadfly, its rule-mongering crank, its official state pain in the a**.”)

The existing rules require a candidate to win a majority of delegates in at least eight states or territories to be formally entered into nomination; currently, only Trump and Ted Cruz qualify. But Haugland wants to lower that bar so that any candidate who won a single delegate in the primaries could get in on the action. This, in turn, would open the door for Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and others to be nominated — all on the theory that “more names in nomination mean fewer votes for Mr. Trump, and the remote possibility that he could be denied the majority he needs to prevent a second ballot,” as Peters puts it.

These are both intriguing hypotheticals — especially for political reporters (like us here at Unconventional) who are desperate for fireworks in Cleveland. But is any of this stuff possible? Can Republicans really change the rules in Cleveland to block Trump’s nomination?

The short answer is yes, they can — but the incentives not to are even stronger than anyone seems to be acknowledging.

Here’s how a rule change would happen. Every delegation going to Cleveland — all 56 of them, or one from each state, U.S. territory and Washington, D.C. — will elect a man and a woman from its ranks to serve on the convention’s Rules Committee. That’s 112 people in all. A few days before the convention begins, the Rules Committee will meet in Cleveland to decide how the gathering will operate. If the majority of the committee agrees on a rule change — like the ones floated above — it will be folded into a comprehensive 2016 rules package and presented to all 2,472 national delegates for approval. For the new rule to go into effect, a majority of those delegates will have to vote yes as well. Then the convention can begin.

Controversial rule proposals have provoked intraparty warfare at past conventions — but they have rarely determined the nomination itself.

At the Democrats’ 1932 convention in Chicago, forces loyal to Franklin D. Roosevelt fought to replace the party’s longstanding two-thirds policy with majority rule; back then, a candidate had to win over a supermajority of delegates to clinch the nomination, and Roosevelt was still dozens of delegates short. The proposal failed, but FDR won the nomination anyway.

In 1980, Ted Kennedy, who trailed incumbent President Jimmy Carter by hundreds of delegates when the primaries ended, was nonetheless convinced that a decisive number of Carter’s pledged delegates secretly supported him. So he swept into the convention in New York City agitating for a rule change that would liberate the delegates from their commitments to the candidates and allow them to vote their conscience. “It was a brutal political fistfight,” according to Harold Ickes, who helped shape Kennedy’s convention strategy and later became Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. The rule change never passed, and Carter clinched the nomination on the first ballot.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, center, with his family as he accepts the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2012. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And who can forget that in 2012, a Rules Committee seeking to protect the pageantry of Mitt Romney’s coronation invented the eight-state requirement that Curly Haugland now wants to scrap — official name: Rule 40(b) — in order to block libertarian favorite Ron Paul from claiming the coveted speaking slot he’d earned by qualifying as formally nominated candidate under the party’s previous set of rules?

All of which is to say: a rule change is possible — in theory.

It is not, however, probable.

Beltway types tend to explain why the GOP won’t block Trump with a rule change in Cleveland by declaring that “the Establishment” is loathe to “risk backlash” by “denying the will of the people.” This is accurate enough. Back when Cruz and Kasich were still competing with Trump, nearly two-thirds of Republicans told pollsters that the candidate with the most votes should win the nomination; now that Cruz and Kasich have signaled their acquiescence by exiting the race, that number is probably even higher.

Party bosses would be tarred and feathered if they intervened.

But this explanation incorrectly assumes that some sort of Trump-hating GOP elite will secretly be pulling the Rules Committee’s strings. Precisely the opposite is true. Consider who will actually serve on the Rules Committee: one man and one woman elected by and from each delegation. Then consider the sort of people who will (mostly) make up these delegations: delegates loyal to the candidate who won their state (usually Trump; sometimes Cruz) or delegates loyal to the candidate who finagled to get them elected at their state’s GOP convention (usually Cruz). As one former Rules Committeeman recently told Unconventional, “the Rules Committee is going to be 80 percent Trump and Cruz folks.”

This isn’t the elite; it’s the anti-elite. So neither Team Trump nor Team Cruz will be particularly incentivized to cater to the establishment by rewriting the rules in a way that would make it easier for a Jeb Bush or John Kasich to snatch the nomination. Trump supporters will bitterly oppose any proposed changes for obvious reasons. Likewise, Cruz fans will be disinclined to give the “Washington cartel” what it wants.

In a recent conversation with Unconventional, Cruz’s convention manager, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, explained that Cruz’s delegates are more concerned with protecting the GOP platform than blocking Trump’s nomination.

“You seem to be inherently casting this as Cruz people versus Trump people,” Cuccinelli snapped when we asked if Cruz delegates would be battling it out with Trump delegates on the Rules Committee. “But when it comes to something like the rules, this is very much the establishment versus the grassroots, and I think you would find an awful lot of overlap between Cruz and Trump delegates in that regard.”

Cuccinelli went on to suggest that Cruz and Trump delegates are likely to band together to oppose the sort of last-minute establishment meddling — he called it “oppression” — that produced Rule 40(b) last time around.

“It infuriated a lot of us, myself included,” he recalled.

In fact, the only rule change that Cuccinelli mentioned is a rule that outlaws rule changes.

“One example [that the Cruz delegates might fight for] would be to forbid the RNC from amending the rules in between conventions,” he said.

Recent reports have hinted that Cruz & Co. might pursue other rule changes at the convention, but the goal would be to pave the way for the Texas senator to run again in 2020 — not torpedo Trump in Cleveland.

“We are not trying to undo the presumptive nomination of Donald Trump,” Cuccinelli told Unconventional. “Period. End of discussion.”

Without the cooperation of the Cruz delegates and the Trump delegates (who together will dominate the Rules Committee) any remaining establishment types will be unable to cobble together enough votes for a new, anti-Trump rule — either on the committee or the convention floor.

Our condolences to Curly.


2. #NeverTrump? Never gonna happen. (Vol. 1)

Dallas County delegate Donna Warren Renteria shows off her “Flat POTUS Donald” cutout during the Texas Republican Convention, May 12, 2016, in Dallas. (Photo: LM Otero/AP)

An occasional Unconventional series exploring the latest news about the ongoing shadow “convention” to nominate a conservative #NeverTrump candidate — and why the effort is doomed to fail.

It was not a good weekend for conservatives like William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Erick Erickson of The Resurgent — conservatives who are determined to stop Donald Trump from becoming president by getting a more conservative candidate on the ballot in November.

The first setback came in the eleven states that held their annual Republican conventions or party leadership meetings on Saturday. If a revolt against Trump were brewing, this is where it would bubble up first: among the rank-and-file Republicans who care about the GOP so much that they’re desperate to fly to Cleveland on their own dime in July. If a credible convention challenge — or an independent, conservative candidacy — was in the offing, at least some of these people would resist rallying around Trump.

They didn’t. Instead, as Politico puts it, party leaders in one state after another were “pressuring their members to fall in line behind the presumptive nominee — and even punishing those who refused.”

The message was the same almost everywhere: Trump is flawed, but Hillary Clinton would be far worse.

Four hundred delegates were picked Saturday. Most of them were Trump loyalists: 21 of 36 in Nebraska; 13 of 15 in Nevada; a solid majority of the 14 in Florida; nearly everyone from Arkansas. Nebraskans scuttled a measure to condemn “degrading remarks toward women, minorities and other individuals” by presidential candidates, and overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing a call by their home-state Sen. Ben Sasse for a third-party Trump challenger.

Marylanders saw a veteran Republican committeeman ousted by a conservative activist who is close to Trump. Oklahomans and Montanans rallied around a common theme: “United We Stand.” And in Wisconsin, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner declared that while he had supported Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, he would be voting for Trump in November.

“Donald Trump has won our nomination fair and square,” Sensenbrenner said.

Even worse for Kristol and Erickson is the fact that it’s not just rank-and-file Republicans who are refusing to play along with the #NeverTrump movement — no potential candidates are cooperating either.

In a thorough story Friday for the Washington Post, reporters Philip Rucker and Robert Costa went “inside the GOP effort to draft an independent candidate to derail Trump.” What they discovered is that a lot of people — including Mark Cuban, the brash billionaire businessman and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team — have been asked to run, and all of them have given the same tepid response: thanks but no thanks.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says he has no interest in being drafted as an independent candidate — and he’s not alone. (Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

“[Trump] could come after me all he wanted, and he knows I would put him in his place,” Cuban told the Post. “All that said, again, I don’t see it happening.

There isn’t enough time.”

Kasich’s advisers dismissed the idea as well. “The governor is not entertaining nor will he run as an independent,” spokesman Chris Schrimpf said.

“They had plenty of time and opportunity to influence the [GOP] nomination battle in a constructive way, and they didn’t, for whatever reason,” added John Weaver, Kasich’s chief strategist. “The idea of running someone as a third party, particularly the way they’re going about it, is not going to be effective and is not practical.”

Sasse, a Kristol favorite, has repeatedly ruled out the idea of running himself. “Door is shut,” Sasse’s spokesman tweeted after the Post’s story was published. “The answer is no.”

Former Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has also been approached, but “is unlikely to pull the trigger, in part because of health concerns,” friends told the Post.

Gen. James Mattis met for several hours with Kristol in April. But soon afterwards, Mattis “backed away from the idea because he wasn’t ready to risk politicizing his reputation with a campaign that had little hope for success,” according to Rucker and Costa.

Another general, Stanley McChrystal, has declined to run as well.

“I’m not entertaining any candidacy,” the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan told the Post via email.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the #NeverTrump “movement.” Without a candidate to support — and without real, live voters to support him or her — you don’t have a movement at all. You have a hashtag.


3. Carson reveals that Trump’s VP shortlist is filled with people who don’t want to be Trump’s VP

Trump’s potential VP candidates

Ben Carson says Donald Trump’s list of possible running mates includes some awfully familiar names for anyone who’s followed the 2016 presidential race: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“Those are all people on our list,” Carson told the Washington Post.

Never mind the fact that, as Yahoo News Senior Editor Dylan Stableford reports, all but one of these alleged prospects has either ruled out joining the ticket, refused to endorse Trump, or admitted that they would be a poor choice:

Just last week, Palin said that she doesn’t want to a “burden” for Trump.

“I just want the guy to win. I want America to win,” Palin said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I am such a realist that I realize there are a whole lot of people out there who would say, ‘Anybody but Palin.’ I wouldn’t want to be a burden on the ticket, and I recognize that in many, many eyes, I would be that burden.”

Christie, who has appeared alongside Trump at numerous campaign events since endorsing the real estate mogul, is seen by many as a shoo-in for a cabinet post in a Trump administration, though not necessarily vice president.

On Tuesday, Rubio said that while he will honor his pledge to support the Republican nominee, he’s not interested in becoming Trump’s running mate.

“I believe he would be best served by someone who more fully embraces the things he stands for,” Rubio told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And that is certainly not me.”

Kasich, who sealed Trump’s presumptive nominee status by dropping out of the race, has repeatedly said he has no interest in becoming vice president.

“Zero chance,” he told the Fox Business Network in March. “I have no interest, I’m going to be governor of Ohio. There is zero chance I will be anybody’s vice presidential candidate — period, end of story.”

As for Cruz, he
made no mention of Trump in a speech at the Texas GOP Convention in Dallas on Saturday afternoon.

“We may face some challenging days ahead,” Cruz said. “But I am convinced [the conservative] movement — the men and women gathered here — will be the remnant, will be the core of pulling this country back from the abyss.”

How many people will turn Trump down before he finally finds a running mate? Tweet you best guesses to @andrewromano — and make sure to name names.

Oh, and speaking of politicians who don’t want to run alongside Trump. …


4. Video: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman on Trump’s VP search: “I’d like to stay off the list”

Portman wants to stay off Trump's VP list

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman recently joined Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric on “Yahoo News Live” to discuss his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, whom Portman met last Thursday during Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill.
Portman’s name has been floated as a potential running mate for Trump, but he didn’t seem to be into the idea when Couric asked him about it.

“I’m happy representing Ohio, so I’m not interested,” Portman said. “I really think it’s crucial right now to keep Ohio as one of the Republican states to keep that majority because it may determine the majority in the Senate.”

When further pressed about whether he would like to be on Trump’s short or long list of potential vice presidential picks, Portman ruled it out.

“I’d like to stay off the list and continue to do what I do best, which is to reach across the aisle and get stuff done,” he said.

Another one bites the dust.

5. The best of the rest


History Lesson

Ronald Reagan waves to the crowd on the final night of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 19, 1976, in Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 19, 1976. Behind Reagan, left to right, are Gerald Ford’s sons — Mike, Jack and Steve Ford — Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, President Gerald Ford, Betty Ford and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole. (Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

If recent reports are right and Ted Cruz is, in fact, preparing to “fight for the GOP’s future” in Cleveland by influencing the platform and revising some rules, it’s possible that Team Trump will be more accommodating than most observers expect. Why?

Because they’ve learned from history. Senior Trump adviser Paul Manafort served as a staff member for then-President Gerald Ford at the contentious 1976 Republican convention, and he saw firsthand what happened when Ford (the nominee) alienated Ronald Reagan (the runner-up).

Ford never got over the fact Reagan had challenged him in 1976. How can you challenge an incumbent president of your own party and not be divisive? Ford thought when Reagan first called him to announce his intentions. “It burned the hell out of me that I got the diversion from Reagan that caused me to spend an abnormal part of my time trying to round up individual delegates and to raise money,” he admitted in interviews embargoed until after his death.

After Ford clinched the nomination at the convention, he met privately with Reagan in the latter’s hotel suite, but achieved only a partial reconciliation. “The tension of our long campaign permeated that room,” Ford recalled. Reagan later said would have accepted the VP slot, but Ford offered it to Bob Dole instead.

And as the general election got underway, Ford repeatedly resisted reaching out to Reagan for help in the general election — and Reagan didn’t exactly offer his assistance. Ford later speculated that he would have defeated Carter if Reagan had campaigned for him in Texas and Mississippi.

“They didn’t give a damn whether I won or not because they were already planning to run in 1980,” Ford said.

Today, Manafort recognizes that Ford’s team should have done a better job of reconciling with Reagan.

“The Ford campaign didn’t handle Reagan right in ’76 because it didn’t make him feel important,” Manafort recently told the New York Times. “As a consequence the campaign lost the value of Reagan for a month and a half.”

Cruz could benefit in Cleveland as a result.