Seven months before the start of the party’s nominating convention in Cleveland, members of the Republican Party’s governing authority are expressing concern that the GOP isn’t prepared for the possibility of a contested convention.
At the party’s winter meeting in Charleston, talk of a contested, or multi-balloted, convention has been rampant through the hallways of the luxury Belmond Charleston Place hotel. Even top party officials are torn between their political curiosity and the daunting challenge of effectively managing the sort of convention not seen in two generations, before the advent of cable news or even Star Wars.
“Before I was in this job I thought it would be nice, now I’m less enthusiastic,” quipped RNC General Counsel John Ryder, the national committeeman from Tennessee.
With 12 candidates remaining in the GOP field, multiple elements of the Republican National Committee are laying the groundwork for what remains an unlikely, but extraordinary eventuality in which no candidate possesses the required 1,237 delegates to win the nomination when the convention opens on July 18. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told TIME last week that he believes a presumptive nominee will emerge by the end of April, but said it was only prudent to consider all contingencies.
“You obviously prepare for any scenario,” Priebus said. Priebus has been reaching out privately to members of the RNC, as well as seasoned Republican Party hands for months to discuss how to address the threat of a contested convention.
Ryder, whose office takes the lead in interpreting the party’s arcane rules which will ultimately govern the gathering in Cleveland, said the focus will be on identifying potential hiccups before they manifest at the convention.
“None of these rules have been tested in an open convention,” he told TIME Wednesday. “Some of these rules go back 100 years, but none of us have ever seen how they work in a contested environment, so we’re trying to look at the rules and think through the problems that can arise if we had a multi-candidate convention.”
On Thursday, the RNC Rules Committee will meet for its quarterly consideration of the party’s rules, and will directly address potential changes needed to adapt to such a situation. But the RNC can only recommend rules changes to the convention rules committee, and then the delegates at convention itself will have final say. The rules committee and other officials are contemplating if and how the rules should change under various candidate scenarios.
One rule that will almost certainly change at the convention is 40(b), a contentious provision inserted in the last convention by Mitt Romney allies that requires candidates to control a majority of the votes from eight delegations in order to be entered into nomination. The rule was used to keep Ron Paul off the roll, ensuring Romney won on the convention floor in unopposed fashion, but deeply perturbed the party’s grassroots. How to adjust the provision, or whether to eliminate it entirely, will depend on how many candidates are in contention by the convention.
The uncertainty also stems from the fact that each state delegation will choose one man and one woman to serve on each of the four different committees, including the one that drafts the rules.
Jim Bopp, who serves as special counsel to the RNC Rules Committee and a prominent conservative appellate attorney, said the discussions won’t be carried out to benefit one candidate or another—and that it would be imprudent to do so. “We’re not psychic,” he says.
“Recent history has been we’ve had a presumptive nominee who won the majority of the vote,” he added. "We have to plan for the possibility that someone doesn’t have the majority vote and we have to make sure that everyone gets to participate fairly in that convention.”
But RNC members are also wary of inviting the notion that they are seeking to impose a nominee in a top-down fashion.
“There is nothing we can do to change the rules,” said Kaufman. “Any rules changes that happen in Cleveland will come from who has the most delegates.”
“We want to ensure we have a delegate-focused and a bottom-up process,” said Bopp, saying he hoped the party would avoid the rules drama it encountered in Tampa in 2012.
Officials also assert that they are keeping campaigns informed of their discussions. “The RNC is in constant communication with all the campaigns,” Ryder said. “And I know a lot of the campaigns are thinking about these issues.” The rules committee's proceedings are open to the press and to presidential campaigns, who have been invited to learn more about the process.
Beyond the party’s rules, it poses a challenge for the Committee on Arrangements, the RNC body responsible for organizing the convention.
“You [would] need three hotels…and three trailers out back, and three teams on the floor, plus the RNC team,” said Massachusetts national committeeman and former Mitt Romney senior adviser Ron Kaufman. “That’s what people are concerned about—how do you do that.”
Bopp added that the convention program may have to be rethought, with recent conventions limiting the business of voting and committee reports to the first day. “It’s simple things like that, that I think will have a profound impact,” he said.
Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the convention, said it is "premature" for any plans to be in place, but they will be formulated in due course.
"It is the convention committee’s job to have contingency plans in place, the same way we did over the last several conventions with hurricanes," she said. "That will in fact be done. But it is very premature for conversations or plans to be in place right now."