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Rules of engagement 

click to enlarge GAGE SKIDMORE VIA WIKIMEDIA
  • Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia

From the fate of my mediocre fantasy football team to make the playoffs to the selection of jurors in criminal cases, the rules of the game are important in determining winners and losers in all aspects of life. As it now becomes increasingly likely that no candidate is going to run away with the 2016 presidential nomination in an emphatically factionalized Republican Party, the rules for determining the selection of convention delegates make it difficult for one candidate to claim a majority before the mid-July GOP convention in Cleveland.

Following the 2012 GOP nomination cycle, the rules for nominating the party's presidential candidate changed in several important ways. First, the rules were altered to link the voting percentages gained in primaries and caucuses more tightly to the proportion of delegates a candidate collected from a given state (Ron Paul's rabid supporters had stayed engaged and gained more delegates than deserved by controlling later state conventions where delegates were actually selected). Second, while contests through mid-March would use proportional representation rules for the allocation of delegates, the large (and expensive) states after that point would use "winner-take-all" rules to allow a front-running candidate to quickly put the contest away. Finally, the bulk of the selection process was moved earlier to ensure that the party's presumptive nominee would not sit for months before the GOP convention when the national party could officially begin coordinating with their nominee's campaign. (In 2012, the Romney campaign faced money challenges for a number of weeks before he officially became the party nominee; during that period, the Obama campaign effectively defined Mitt Romney as "out of touch" with middle-class Americans because of his past business practices.)

These rules reforms were responses to the challenges Romney faced in 2012 where a candidate was clearly on his way to a nomination but the rules kept more ideological opponents alive and distracted him from finishing up the nomination and moving to the general election campaign. Although it is still just under two months before the first votes are cast in Iowa, a key problem for the GOP is that it appears increasingly unlikely that one candidate will be able to break from the pack so that the rules could benefit the party in the way envisioned.

Instead, these rules will be applied to a nomination dynamic unlike anything that we've seen in the modern era: a still mammoth field of candidates, factions based on personality and ideology, and fast-changing world events that are accentuating those divisions rather than uniting the party. Last week's horrific events in San Bernadino sadly provides even more fuel for an authoritarian Donald Trump candidacy; on Monday of this week, Trump's call for the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims" coming into the United States is only the latest salvo in his increasingly extreme (and increasingly popular, among GOP activists) rhetoric. Also increasingly clear is that GOP mainliners are ready to move heaven and earth to keep Trump from that nomination.

Just as Trump's rhetoric reached a new level this week, the criticisms of him from the mainline conservative candidates (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham) and their surrogates also reached a new level of ferocity. Meanwhile, the two other viable candidates — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida's Marco Rubio — generally stayed away from the fray of that battle and instead focused their energies in criticizing one another on issues ranging from immigration to foreign policy.

The likely result is that Trump and representatives of the different factions of the party will survive until mid-March. Those candidates would then strategically focus their resources across the larger winner-take-all states that select their delegates in late March and early April. If they divvy up those state's large delegations, no candidate would hold the majority necessary to lock in the nomination. Rather than providing the party a benefit, the short run-up to the convention would not allow the party time to overcome the division, making the 2016 GOP race the most likely in generations to produce a genuine "brokered convention."

In his appearance at the annual J.N. Heiskell Lecture at the Central Arkansas Library System on Monday evening, ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl noted that elites in the GOP are now actively preparing for such a possibility, while hoping that a candidate (named neither Trump nor Cruz) will emerge with a majority support in advance of next summer. Most interestingly, Karl noted that, under GOP convention rules, as the highest ranked Republican elected official in the country, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan would chair the convention, making key parliamentary decisions. In short, the mainliners would once again be in control of the action, likely to Donald Trump's detriment.

This election cycle is already one of the most extraordinary electoral adventures in decades. When big personalities and big issues are front and center, mundane rules are often lost. But it is those rules that will have much to say about separating success and failure.

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