BY DAVID LIGHTMAN
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON — The 2016 Republican National Convention is shaping up as a free-for-all where every delegate is a kingmaker, rules could change and no one will have an easy time figuring out what’s going on.
In other words, no brokered convention. There aren’t any more brokers.
“This is not something that will be decided wholesale,” said Morton Blackwell, a Virginia Republican national committeeman and rules expert.
Smoke-filled rooms? No. Smoking isn’t allowed inside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, where the four-day convention convenes July 18.
“If there is a back room, it’ll have yogurt and granola in it,” said Katon Dawson, former South Carolina Republican chairman.
Front-runner Donald Trump currently leads the Republican field with 736 delegates, trailed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 463, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio with 143. A candidate needs 1,237 for the nomination.
Cruz’s forces see momentum, and talk of a multi-ballot convention is growing.
If that happens, Republican Chairman Reince Priebus has promised transparency.
“If it’s an open convention, then we’re going to have to be clear, open and transparent on what the rules say and how they’re administered. And it will be very clear and there will be a camera — cameras at every step of the way,” he said last Sunday on ABC.
On the first ballot, virtually all delegates are bound to their candidates. Most are freed on a second ballot, and by the third ballot, almost anything goes.
Brokers, smoke-filled rooms and multiple ballots used to be standard ways to pick the nominee.
The smoke-filled room got its name 96 years ago, when the Republican convention couldn’t agree on a nominee.
A handful of powerful senators adjourned to a room at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel to break the logjam. They discussed several candidates, and around 2 a.m. they sent for Sen. Warren Harding of Ohio. His chief asset: He looked like a president, and later that year he won the election.
“His dark complexion contrasting with blue eyes and white hair … gave the appearance of mental and physical vigor,” Francis Russell wrote in American Heritage Magazine in 1963.
Post primetime event
The last Republican nominee to be picked after the first ballot was Thomas Dewey in 1948. Since then, the rise of television and primaries have spurred party leaders to get the nomination over with quickly.
In recent conventions, the roll call of the states — a lengthy affair with virtually no drama and lots of short speeches promoting each state — has sometimes begun after 11 p.m., after major networks ended convention coverage.
Organizers have turned prime time at the conventions into ads for their candidates and platforms, featuring speakers or videos adept at wooing persuadable viewers.
Those viewers now have a stake in the process they didn’t have long ago. “Primaries put an end to brokered conventions,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Thirty-nine states are holding Republican primaries this year. In 1948, there were 12, and four chose “unpledged delegates at large.”
Delegates then were chosen largely by party bosses, usually for their loyalty. Today, most delegates are savvy activists. Once unbound on a second or third ballot, they’re likely to fall into two groups: one concerned about promoting an ideology, the other about electability.
The first fight might come in the convention’s rules committee, which will have 112 delegates: two from each state, territory and the District of Columbia. Currently, the rules dictate that only candidates who’ve won majorities of delegates in at least eight states can be nominated.
So far, only Trump has met that threshold, though Cruz is close, and the committee could change the rules.
The committee is highly unpredictable. Most members haven’t been picked yet, and once they are, no one knows whether they’ll change the rules. Priebus noted that the eight-state rule was put in place four years ago.
“So it is true that the 2016 rules committee will review the rules and they will decide on what the rules are for the 2016 convention,” he said.
“That all being said, you know, major changes to the rules are very — are not very common,” he added.
On the floor, too, it’s impossible to say how delegates will be influenced. Many have not been chosen. That often comes later in the process, at party meetings, and can also be unpredictable.
In Louisiana, for instance, Trump won the primary, but Cruz could wind up with more delegates.
And there’s some talk in South Carolina about whether delegates would be bound to Trump on a first ballot, after he said last week that he would no longer be bound by his pledge to support a Republican nominee.