This may turn out to be the year of the living dead.
That’s because there are 12 so-called “zombie” candidates who have suspended their campaigns for president, 11 of whom remain on state ballots throughout the country. If these halted campaigns pick up some delegates in proportional states along the way, they could come to life once again at the GOP convention in July.
But how would that happen, and why? Let’s start with the basics.
In an election cycle that began with 17 Republican candidates, a dozen have already fallen. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry never filed for ballots, but in many states, citizens can still cast a vote for one of the other 11. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is only on one state ballot, according to data provided by the Hohlt Group, but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is on 45 and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is on 39.
(The word “suspended” is key for these candidates. Federal law doesn’t have a specific definition of suspending a campaign, so a “suspended” campaign is not formally ended. When a candidate’s campaign is suspended, he or she can continue to raise money.)
A Republican candidate needs 1,237 delegates to win the nomination outright going into the convention, which this year will begin on July 18. But with the bitter battle currently being waged by the five remaining candidates, some think a contested convention is becoming a real possibility.
That’s where the zombie candidates could come in. If the Republican field barrels towards a contested convention, with, for example, businessman Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio each heading into July without a majority of delegates, then “they’re all kind of looking at each other, that’s when a guy who’s got 100 [delegates] could make a difference in some way,” Richard Hohlt, a longtime Republican donor and political consultant, told TIME.
That man (or woman, as former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina suspended her campaign and is on 37 state ballots), with 100 delegates almost definitely won’t be able to finagle his or her way to a nomination. But those delegates could be useful bargaining chips towards other ends.
Take Christie. He suspended his campaign on February 10 after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire. But his home state’s primary isn’t until early June. So if by June it’s looking more likely that there will be a convention battle, the sitting governor could re-start his campaign to go for the win in New Jersey, which is a winner-take-all state that awards 51 delegates.
If Christie were to win, he could then trade those delegates to one of the leading candidates at the convention in exchange for any number of things: a Cabinet position, money to pay off campaign debt, provisions in the party platform, or consideration for Vice President, to name a few.
A famous example of this is Pat Buchanan, who parlayed his delegate count in 1992 into a prime-time speaking slot ahead of incumbent George H. W. Bush, unleashing a now-famous speech on the “cultural war” gripping the country.
“Different people try to cut different deals depending on the delegates for their state, for themselves, for their ego,” Hohlt said.
An even bigger factor could be the candidates who haven’t suspended their campaigns yet. If one of the current candidates drops out after March 1, they’ll likely have already picked up a significant number of delegates, or at least many more delegates than those candidates who suspended before Super Tuesday.
If Ohio Gov. John Kasich stays in through his home state, for example, he could pick up Ohio’s 66 delegates on March 15 before dropping out. And he would have a much easier time doing it than Christie, since he would be an active candidate at the time.
Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty that peppers the process up to that point, what Hohlt calls “a bunch of smoke and mirrors.”
Each state allocates delegates in a different way— 18 state contests award delegates on a proportional basis, which is where suspended campaigns would be most likely to pick a few up, but nine states are winner-take-all and 23 states are somewhere in-between. Six choose at a state convention.
Beyond that, each state also selects the individual delegates in different ways, and even in the case of delegates who are bound to their candidate, there’s no real punishment for breaking that bind. The state party could hand down some sort of reprimand, but there’s no law against it.
And according to the Republican National Committee, certain state rules would also unbind delegates at the convention if their candidate drops out. Bush picked up four delegates while he was still in the race, but three of those were from New Hampshire, which unbinds its delegates from candidates who have suspended. So in reality, Bush is down to one.
“At this point it’s just too early to know how an inherently random process would turn out when you don’t know all the facts of the situation,” Benjamin Ginsberg, a partner at Jones Day who is an expert in election law, said of the effect zombie candidates could have on the race.
Still, in a primary season that has been as unpredictable as any in recent memory, candidates and party operatives would do well to remember that there are 12 suspended campaigns lurking in the background. And this year, the dead could rise again.
With additional reporting by Zeke Miller
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