Charleston, South Carolina — Every presidential election, the Republican Party’s elected leaders get together to agree on rules over how to run their national convention. Their internal debates—usually hashed out behind closed doors over byzantine, obscure issues—rarely draw attention.
But this year, a rule-tweak from the last election cycle intended to boost the Republican establishment just might backfire on them and end up helping someone many see as Republican enemy #1: Donald Trump.
It started in 2012, when establishment Republicans changed a rule to make it harder for insurgent candidates (like then-Rep. Ron Paul) to challenge a presumptive GOP nominee (see: Mitt Romney) on the convention floor.
The new rule required a nominee to win outright in at least eight states—up from five states—to be nominated at the convention.
While the rule gives the frontrunner a big advantage, it’s safe to say the RNC establishment didn’t have Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in mind when it was crafted.
This year Republican establishment candidates are finding themselves in a situation that feels a lot like Ron Paul’s in 2012—candidates like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush marginalized underdogs hoping to use obscure rules to get traction on the convention floor if things get crazy. Because their establishment allies raised the bar for being nominated in 2012, things could be a little trickier for them if the Republican convention goes off the rails this summer and the party picks its nominee at a floor battle.
And that has Diana Orrock excited. Orrock, the Republican committeewoman from Nevada, is one of Trump’s only avowed allies in the RNC.
“I like a lot of what Mr. Trump is saying,” she said. “I’m throwing my support behind him because he appreciates my endorsement.”
As far as the rules, Orrock sees an upside for Trump and other grassroots candidates in the high threshold. Though in 2012, Republican establishment voters coalesced behind Romney while grassroots voters failed to team up with one or two favorite candidates. So the high threshold lessened their clout. However, this year represents a near-perfect inversion of that, with establishment voters scrambling to pick a favorite from a host of likable candidates, but grassroots voters mostly settled behind Trump and Ted Cruz.
Thus, Orrock said, the high threshold benefits conservative, Tea Party-friendly candidates this time around.
“It was a huge loss in 2012, she said, wryly. “It wouldn’t necessarily be a big loss this time around.”
A huge loss for the grassroots—and a huge fiasco for the Republican Party.
“It caused a huge uproar on the floor of the convention, screaming and yelling,” said Virginia RNC Committeeman Morton Blackwell, recalling the Paul fans’ very public and profane protest on the convention floor.
Blackwell didn’t want that to happen again. And he wanted the RNC’s Rules Committee to formally recommend the party to revert to its pre-2012 nomination process.
But after spending more than an hour in a windowless room on the second floor of a swanky hotel in downtown Charleston, making his pitch to his fellow committeeman, he was rejected.
“I’m appalled,” Blackwell, who backs Ted Cruz, told The Daily Beast afterwards. “I’m appalled.”
Another Cruz backer, former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis, wasn’t peeved about that particular rule.
“I don’t think there’s anything bad about it,” he said.
In fact, he had his own different and perhaps scarier rules-related qualm. And that’s the worry that no candidate will actually crack the eight-state threshold and that the convention rules committee won’t fix it in time.
“Then you have chaos,” he said. “Then you have to change the rule on the floor.”
But other RNC members were perplexed as well. And one, Curly Haugland of North Dakota, argued that the entire controversy was a bit of an exercise in nihilism, as the convention’s rules can be changed at the convention.
“All this binding crap ends before we get to Cleveland,” he said. “That’s the part that’s missing. Nobody’s getting it.”
And he said the likelihood of chaos is high.
“And frankly, most of the people that are talking to the press are either being dishonest or they’re withholding some of the important parts of this conversation,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re hearing, but I know what I’m reading.”