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NPR Politics Podcast Explores The History Of Contested Conventions


Now that Ted Cruz has won Colorado over the weekend and Wisconsin last Tuesday, it looks increasingly likely that a rare contested convention might actually happen. The convention nominating process is enormously complicated from the selection of delegates through multiple rounds of ballots. So our Politics Podcast team invited Ben Ginsberg in to help play out some scenarios and to remind us of the history. NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro was there and is here now in the studio. Domenico...


SHAPIRO: Remind us who Ben Ginsberg is and why you guys wanted to talk to him.

MONTANARO: Well, Ben Ginsberg is really the rules guy. I mean, he knows everything there is to know about how conventions work. He's a prominent Republican election lawyer. He worked all the way back in the '90s for the Republican National Committee as their chief counsel and then worked for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and was all involved in that recount and has been involved with presidential campaigns since then.

SHAPIRO: OK, so we're going to listen to a little bit of the conversation that the Politics Podcast team had with Ben Ginsberg. We're going to hear you, Susan Davis, Sam Sanders from NPR. Talk us into what we're about to hear. What's the context of this?

MONTANARO: Well, we knew we had to go back to 1976, the last time there was this open or contest the convention. And what we really wanted to know was - because heading into that convention, President Gerald Ford was ahead of Ronald Reagan, but he didn't have a majority of the votes - so what we wanted to know was, what was offered to some of these delegates to get them on board because Ford did win on that first ballot?

SHAPIRO: Offered, like, bribes?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, came pretty close.

BEN GINSBERG: There were not a majority of delegates going in who were bound. The Mississippi delegation was unbound and was persuaded of Gerald Ford's credentials, threw its weight for President Ford.

MONTANARO: You say persuaded. How were they persuaded?

GINSBERG: Well, I believe that there were rides provided on Air Force One. I believe...

MONTANARO: (Laughter) That legal?

GINSBERG: It's legal. I believe that wavering delegates were invited to state dinners.


GINSBERG: That's legal. I believe that there were conversations between Ford aids and delegates about the virtues of Gerald Ford, and that's certainly legal.

SANDERS: So should we expect to see the same kind of stuff from Cruz, Trump and Kasich?

GINSBERG: So I think state dinners are kind of off the table for the Republican...


GINSBERG: ...Candidates...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

GINSBERG: ...This time, which is too bad. But travel to...

SANDERS: Mar-a-Lago.

GINSBERG: ...would not be improper, I think, under any existing rules.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What's the Mar-a-Lago?

GINSBERG: That would be Donald Trump's luxurious resort and home down in Florida.


GINSBERG: Things like travel and meals and subsistence expenses are all perfectly legal.

DAVIS: Is money? Can you give a delegate just cold, hard cash?


GINSBERG: My legal...

SANDERS: I need to be a delegate.

GINSBERG: My legal advice would be that might smell like a bride to somebody and so probably not a good idea. And I don't think anyone would contemplate the actual payment of dollars. There is a statute that prohibits the offer of a federal job, but telling somebody that, gee, you look like a really accomplished individual, and we want you to be a part of what we get going forward once we're elected, is certainly permissible, is a thing to talk about.

SANDERS: If you had to say three possible likely scenarios for the convention, can you name the three most likely and which is the most likely of those three?

GINSBERG: One is the clear winner. I would put more money on that than anything else. We are Republicans. We like things neat and tidy. By history, you would think that somebody does get to the magic 1,237 number, in which case you have a clear winner and a peaceful convention.

SANDERS: That's scenario one.

GINSBERG: Scenario one.


GINSBERG: Scenario number two - let's call it the clear cluster, where no candidate is within proximity to getting the majority. So if at - 1,237 is the magic number, it's somewhere around 1,100 delegates that someone comes in with. It is difficult in that scenario where the camps get locked in to see somebody actually succeeded in getting to 1,237 except after a long period of time. But that's kind of a fair fight.

SANDERS: So multiple ballots, though.

GINSBERG: Multiple ballots.


GINSBERG: So the third scenario is the party buster scenario. If you're going to have a clear cluster, you've got to have a party buster, too.



SANDERS: That kind of rhymes.

GINSBERG: The party - it does, diliberately.


GINSBERG: So the party buster is when a candidate is within close proximity to the majority but doesn't have it. And if that candidate - Donald Trump seems the most likely under the current delegate totals - comes into the convention with 1,200 delegates and needs 1,237 and somehow is denied that 1,200, that's the most contentious scenario.

DAVIS: So you have been doing. You've been an elections lawyer, campaign finance lawyer. You've been involved in processes across parties and elections. Is this year and this scenario, like - is - do you feel like this is, like, your Super Bowl, or is this, like, your worst nightmare?

GINSBERG: (Laughter) A little of both.


GINSBERG: A little both. I mean, look. Unanticipated events are kind of just a hallmark of politics generally. I thought I'd ever be involved in a presidential recount. I thought they were absolutely impossible to take place. Well, lo and behold one happened. And I think that having this much contention in both political parties with sort of the mix of candidate types who you've got involved makes this year, 2016, clearly a different year from any that we've had before. That's both exhilarating and terribly frightening.

SHAPIRO: OK, that was a bit of the NPR Politics Podcast with their special guest Ben Ginsberg, a prominent Republican elections lawyer. We also heard the voices of NPR's Sam Sanders, Sue Davis and Demenico Montanaro, who is still with us. And Domenico, having heard all of these rules, I guess they make a little more sense now, but they still sound highly arbitrary. What's the point here?

MONTANARO: And maybe terribly frightening, right? (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And maybe terribly frightening.

MONTANARO: I mean, the fact is, if you were an alien that came down from another planet and you looked at the way that we elect presidents, you would think, what is this jumbled mess...


MONTANARO: ...Of stuff. I mean, it winds up getting created because you have people in various states who want control over their system and their process. Then you have the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee go in and say, hey, why don't you tweak this and do this?

And you wind up adding layers and layers and layers of stuff that if you were just an - you know, a regular person who's just starting to pay attention to this and now you have to pay attention to delegates, boy, this looks like the most complicated thing you could possibly imagine.

SHAPIRO: And just to make everybody a little more cross-eyed, isn't there a rules committee that could change all of this just before the convention even begins?

MONTANARO: Yes. And we get to that in the podcast, where, you know, the - a week before, there's one rule in particular that is really significant where Ted Cruz or Donald Trump - if this rule sticks, only one of those two people can be the candidate.

SHAPIRO: Oh, right. This is the one that says in order to be the nominee, you have to have won something like eight states.

MONTANARO: Yeah, so you have had to have won a majority of delegates in eight states. Now, this rule was written in 2012 before that 2012 convention, so it's technically not unfair to change the rules because those rules were for that convention.

SHAPIRO: But for...

MONTANARO: So for someone like Donald Trump, you're going to say, wait; you're going to change the rules on me now?

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like the whole collection of rules is just an arbitrary little bit of this and that that were thrown in to deal with the Ford-Reagan scenario or the George W. Bush scenario or whenever the...

MONTANARO: Or Ron Paul, (inaudible).

SHAPIRO: Or the Ron Paul scenario. So that's what we're left with today.

MONTANARO: That's what we're left with today. And there are multiple rounds of potential for changing these rules. In fact, they could change the rules after you have multiple ballots. If they're just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, we don't have somebody, they can convene the rules committee. They can vote on it. They can change it to however they want.

SHAPIRO: That sound you just heard was campaign managers' heads hitting the desk (laughter).

MONTANARO: And staying employed.

SHAPIRO: ...Or rubbing their hands with glee because they're getting such big paychecks navigating all of this.

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: Pleasure, as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.