Why the Real Contested GOP Convention Battle Could Start in April

PHOTO: In this file photo, balloons drop on stage during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Aug. 30, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. PlayJoe Raedle/Getty Images
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Imagine a floor fight with chaotic eleventh-hour negotiating at the July Republican convention in Cleveland. It’s possible – but the real battle would quietly be beginning months before that.

More than half of the Republican presidential delegates awarded from primaries and caucuses will be allocated after March 15, but the selection of individuals serving as delegates to the Republican convention will just be getting started, a new ABC News analysis shows.

Even though roughly six in 10 of the Republican delegates will be allotted after Ohio and Florida vote in mid-March, a mere 21 percent of the individual delegates filling those roles will be chosen at that point in time.

National convention delegates include district-level and statewide delegates who are selected directly by voters or at local and state meetings, as well as Republican National Committee members, who automatically become delegates to the national convention.

The actual delegate selection process, which has flown largely under the radar but could decide the nomination in a contested convention, ramps up to full speed just as the primary and caucus schedule slows down.

In fact, almost three-quarters of the people attending the convention as delegates will be selected in the final two months of the primary schedule.

“It becomes very important who these delegates are, because their second choices may be the primary candidates that they’re supporting,” said Saul Anuzis, a former RNC member from Michigan who backs Sen. Ted Cruz.

Next Tuesday marks a pivotal date in the primary calendar. If either Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio win their winner-take-all home states of Ohio and Florida, it would make obtaining a majority of delegates very difficult for the other candidates.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus said a contested convention is still unlikely, putting the odds at 15 percent.

But the month of April and May mark a crucial stretch in the process with intricate state-level and even precinct-level jockeying by the presidential campaigns.

“They should have people on the ground in every state identifying likely delegates and working to get people who are supportive of their candidates elected,” said Curly Haugland, an RNC rules panel member from North Dakota.

On the first ballot, nearly every delegate in the room will be bound to vote for a candidate. But a majority of the delegates are free to vote however they want after the first ballot.

Although only one-fifth of all GOP delegates – many of them in the delegate-rich state of California – are left to be allocated in primaries and caucuses after May 1, about half of the actual people serving as delegates will be selected during that crucial time frame.

So how are these people chosen? The process is different in each state. Most are elected at district-level or statewide party meetings or chosen directly by voters.

“Most of these delegates are elected at the congressional district level,” Anuzis said, pointing out that most delegates are local party officials or local activists and volunteers selected at state and local meetings. “It will be very important who controls those conventions.”

Even as the candidates' campaigns are focusing on the caucuses and primaries, they’re working hard to get their own supporters elected as delegates in states that have already voted.

These state party rules – as well as national rules and their interpretation by yet-to-be-named members of the convention’s 112-member rules panel – could prove crucial in an arena where every last delegate counts.

“The rules will be made by the delegates, and we don’t even know who they are yet,” said Haugland.

“If this becomes a brokered convention, all these little nuances could become a big deal,” Anuzis explained, referring to potential disagreements over credentialing delegates and other technical procedural challenges.