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How the Republican Party made it harder for convention delegates to vote against Trump

- July 17, 2016

The marathon one-day session of the Republican National Convention’s rules committee is over. The committee ended up disappointing the “Never Trump” faction, as it did not change the rules in a fashion that might allow any willing convention delegates to stop Trump’s nomination.

But this doesn’t mean that the committee’s work was unimportant. Here are five key things the committee did that will affect not only 2016 but also 2020.

Creating a presidential nomination study committee

Much as it did eight years ago in Minneapolis, the rules committee created a temporary body to consider some of the thornier questions about the nominations process. In 2009-2010, the earlier committee — called the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee — focused on the primary calendar (leading to the proportionality requirement, for example).

However, the newly created temporary committee on presidential nominations has a seemingly broader scope. Everything from delegate apportionment (Rule 14), the calendar (Rule 16) and penalties (Rule 17) will be on the table.

But why not just deal with this all at the convention? The intent was to give the Republican Party the time and space to adequately consider those matters, since the rules committee meets for at most two days — not enough time, committee members believed, to fully consider controversial rules destined to stir up lengthy debates.

Unlike a 2013 subcommittee the Republican National Committee chartered with much the same goal, this committee will probably have a wider, more representative membership than just the rules committee members. Of course, the rule vested the power to select the membership in the national committee chair.

This new committee is likely to meet in 2017 with the goal of providing the RNC with recommendations to act on in 2018.

The controversial Rule 12 survives

Rule 12 of the Rules of the Republican Party shifted rules-making powers away from the convention and to the Republican National Committee. It allows the RNC to make changes to other rules after the convention — for the next election cycle, up until summer 2018 — so that the party can adapt to anything that may emerge after the convention. For example, Rule 12 empowered the RNC to establish the committee that examined the presidential primary debates process for 2016.

But Rule 12 is controversial because some grass-roots elements in the party don’t like delegating this authority to the RNC. So the rules committee considered a move to strike the rule — producing a vote that was believed to proxy the later battle over unbinding the delegates.

This move failed, however. The amendment to strike Rule 12 from the rulebook garnered only 23 votes.

Significant changes to delegate allocation were defeated

The first two actions — creating a study committee and retaining Rule 12 — will allow the RNC to continue tinkering with the presidential nomination process. Its decisions will be all the more important given what the Convention Rules Committee did not do.

Essentially, many proposed changes to many aspects of the Republican primaries were voted down. The committee rejected an attempt to shift the primaries more toward the proportional allocation of delegates as well as an attempt to grant bonus delegates to states based on the number of Republicans in a state’s congressional delegation and the number of Republican governors. The committee also rejected, after a long debate, a proposal to provide a 20 percent delegate bonus to states with closed primaries.

Part of what doomed these proposals was the study committee created earlier in the day. A constant refrain throughout rules committee’s deliberations was that it did not have the time in two days of potential meetings at the convention to deal with these issues.

The existence of a future study committee thus gave the majority group of Trump/RNC delegates a means to avoid a time-consuming debate that could delay the convention.

Essentially, the study committee allowed the rules committee to hit the pause button on any changes to the presidential nomination process. The RNC will revisit those matters later and outside of the convention.

Failing to unbind the delegates

As is well known, the committee failed to change Rule 16, which would have “un-bound” delegates. This was a defeat for the anti-Trump forces. In fact, an amendment to a different rule, Rule 37, added more specific language explicitly binding delegates based on primary and caucus outcomes. Specifically, the phrase “nothing in the rule shall prohibit the binding of delegates pursuant to Rule 16(a)(2)” was added the current text of Rule 37(b) and Rule 38. The one-sided vote in favor of this amendment was a harbinger of the next vote, which defeated a “conscience clause” amendment also intended to free the delegates.

Assuming this package of rules changes passes muster with the full 2016 convention, it will be a remarkable setback for the “Free the Delegates” movement. The 2020 race will actually bind the delegates even more based on the results of the primaries and caucuses. Yes, the 2020 convention can set its own rules, but as this year demonstrates, changing the rules midstream is difficult at best.

The Infamous Rule 40

The final noteworthy change was to Rule 40(b), which had been looming over the 2016 primaries since at least 2014. The rule said a candidate had to win a majority of the vote in eight states to have his or her name placed into nomination at the convention. This was intended to build some consensus while also limiting the number of candidates on the presidential nomination roll call ballot.

When so many candidates initially entered the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the eight-state majority threshold seemed to project a potential stalemate at the convention. Even as the field winnowed, the doomsday scenarios morphed from no one meeting that threshold to multiple candidates reaching it.

This controversy was not lost on the members of the rules committee. In a unanimous vote, the committee voted to change the eight-state majority threshold to the five-state plurality threshold that had existed before 2012.

All of this and more will go before all 2472 delegates on the first evening of the convention after the rules committee has convened one last time. Further debate could come up on the floor via the use of minority reports. But opponents of this rules package — including any diehard opponents of Trump himself — are facing an uphill battle.

Josh Putnam is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia and the author of the Frontloading HQ blog.