The most important Republican presidential election in Kansas may turn out not to have been the caucus on Saturday but the election of delegates to the party convention.
And applications to be a delegate are due at 5 p.m. Friday.
If Donald Trump or any other candidate fails to secure a majority of delegates before Republicans gather in Cleveland on July 18-21, there will be a contested convention. This means individual delegates will decide who gets the nomination.
The last time voting at a convention mattered was 40 years ago, said Clayton Barker, the executive director for the Kansas Republican Party. That’s when Gerald Ford managed to beat out Ronald Reagan on the first vote, even though he had not secured a majority of the automatic votes going into the convention.
In Kansas, the process of choosing delegates is skewed toward people who have been involved in Republican politics for years. In a close fight at the convention, this could mean the difference between Republicans selecting Trump or a more traditional party candidate.
The backroom maneuvering for who these delegates will be and how much power they might have has already begun, according to Barker.
What delegates can do
The Republican presidential candidate is determined not by who has the most votes or wins the most states but who has the most delegates.
In a normal election year, who the delegates are doesn’t matter much. That’s because they are required to vote for the candidate they were told by voters to choose. If a candidate wins a majority of the delegates, the candidate automatically wins the party’s nomination.
But if no candidate wins a majority of the delegates, then some of those delegates are free to change candidates A delegate that is committed to Marco Rubio or John Kasich on the first ballot could, on a second ballot, switch allegiance to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Maneuvering for favorable rules
But that’s not all. Many rules at the convention change every election. And delegates are the ones who decide what the new rules will be.
So even if Trump and Cruz want to limit who appears on the convention ballot, Barker said, the delegates can choose otherwise. A delegate who is assigned to Trump but who really favors Kasich, for example, might vote to make it easier for Kasich to appear on the ballot.
In fact, it would be possible for the delegates to change the rules so much that they could allow a candidate who didn’t even appear on any primary ballots, such as Mitt Romney, to be considered.
“There is a lot of maneuvering going on,” Barker said.
Almost all the people who will choose the delegates were chosen themselves in 2014.
In other states, the selection of the committees happens closer to the elections so the campaigns of candidates can have a larger impact. So Trump supporters, who may not have had strong party participation or ties before, may be at a disadvantage, according to Barker.
That’s because the people who directly elect the delegates could choose more mainstream Republican delegates who they know over a new Trump delegate.
“(The delegates are) someone who puts in a lot of time and have done it for a lot of time,” Barker said. “That’s a big advantage in our system.”
He said that these committee members tend to refer to themselves more as “grassroots activists” and bristle at being called “establishment” Republicans.
How delegates are selected
The process is complicated.
Voters elected around 6,000 Republican precinct captains during the 2014 election. Soon afterward, those captains chose around 600 congressional district committee members. And those 600 members then chose most of the 182 state committee members.
Two committees select 37 delegates to the presidential convention. The congressional committee chooses 12 in April, and the state committee chooses the remaining 25 in May.
There is a lot of negotiation at these meetings over who to vote for.
“It’s a lot of who you’ve worked with before, so you trust them, and recommendations from other people you trust,” Barker said.
What committee members look for
Barker sends out the names and contact information of potential delegates ahead of time, so committee members can ask them questions ahead of the vote, including what candidate they support.
But the state party doesn’t ask for or officially publish which candidate a delegate would support beyond the first convention ballot.
Some people may prefer to vote for a delegate whose judgment they trust rather than someone who prefers the same candidates, Barker said, “so when you get up there you can deal with the unpredictable.”
It matters not just who gets selected to be a delegate, but how many votes they receive. Delegates with the most votes choose what candidate they will support first. That means Trump and Cruz delegates, in particular, could strategically choose to support Rubio and Kasich, Barker said, hoping that Rubio and Kasich will drop out and they then would be free to change their votes the second time.
The rush to be nominated
Any Republican voter can nominate himself or herself to be a delegate by filling out a form on the party’s website, ksgop.org. But it has to be done by 5 p.m. Friday.
Delegates are required to pay for their own travel and accommodations for the convention and have to miss a week of work. So typically there aren’t a huge number of nominations. The party received 110 self-nominations in 2012, Barker said. But he has seen a surge this year, and had received around 150 by Thursday morning.
If any candidate captures a majority of the delegates, none of this will matter much, Barker said. For example, in 2012, Romney’s lawyers dominated the convention’s rule-making process.
But if no one gets a majority, he said, “it could get real interesting really fast.”