Candidates, outside groups and party officials are quietly maneuvering for a nomination fight that goes all the way to the bitter end.
Mysterious outside groups are asking state parties for personal data on potential delegates, Republican campaigns are drawing up plans to send loyal representatives to obscure local conventions, and party officials are dusting off rule books to brush up on a process that hasn’t mattered for decades.
As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz divide up the first primaries and center-right Republicans tear one another apart in a race to be the mainstream alternative, Republicans are waging a shadow primary for control of delegates in anticipation of what one senior party official called “the white whale of politics”: a contested national convention.
The endgame for the most sophisticated campaigns is an inconclusive first ballot leading to a free-for-all power struggle on the floor in Cleveland.
“This is going to be a convention like I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said veteran operative Barry Bennett, who managed Ben Carson’s campaign until December and is now advising Donald Trump. “It’s going to be contentious from Day One.”
One former RNC chairman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested another soft power that the national party could assert over the outcome. The RNC’s Committee on Arrangements controls the logistics of conventions, including the allocation of staging space for campaigns’ whipping operations. In the heat of a floor fight, such details could become meaningful.
But another former chairman, Michael Steele, warned that any attempt by party insiders to nudge the nomination to a favored candidate would be disastrous. “If they want to monkey around with this process and try to fix it, they’re asking for all hell to break loose,” he said.
“Any inkling that state party officials or national party officials are colluding and conspiring to prevent a particular individual from getting the nomination,” he said, “will basically create Armageddon with the base.”