For decades, it’s been a far-fetched scenario in the daydreams of political wonks. But now, as top Republican officials huddle in South Carolina for their annual winter meeting, some GOP insiders are getting serious about what might happen if no presidential candidate wins a majority of delegates.
With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses and still no consensus emerging in the pack, rumblings of a possible contested convention are gaining traction for the first time among those in the party’s highest body.
Most say that a presumptive nominee – that is, a candidate who wins more than half of the delegates in the presidential race – is still the most likely outcome. The Republican National Committee will hold its nominating convention in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 18-21.
“Almost every [delegate] is free on the third ballot. That’s where you really create uncertainty politically, and everybody’s now negotiating and cutting deals,” said former Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis.
The battle, however, may start before the convention even begins. At the heart of the conversation is this rule: candidates must win a majority of delegates in at least eight states to be nominated on the convention floor.
It was originally aimed at stifling Ron Paul supporters at the 2012 convention. But the rule may become the focal point in July when delegates will have an opportunity to change the threshold just days before the convention.
“If someone comes in and they have eight states, they may not want to change the rules because they may be the only nominee,” said Anuzis, adding that it’s also possible no candidates will win eight states. “But there may be other candidates who say we should at least have a contest, so we want to go down to six or five.”
That’s why the convention’s panel on rules may prove critical. “The rules never cover every contingency, but you try to be as broad or specific as you can to cover whatever contingencies might arise,” Bruce Ash, who chairs the RNC’s rules panel, told ABC News.
“We want the candidates to understand that nobody has their finger on the scale at the RNC,” said Ash, a committeeman from Arizona. “It wouldn’t be a couple guys sitting in the back of the room smoking cigars.”
But there would likely be insider jockeying to get onto the crucial panel. “You would probably have a fairly large fight the week before the rules committee as people try to manipulate rules that would be favorable to their position,” Anuzis said.
Still, for most members, a possible contested convention remains only that: a possibility.
"We fully expect to have a presumptive nominee heading into convention week," said convention spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski, adding that a panel will "plan for everything" but "it is premature to speculate."
“We’re going to go through Iowa and we’re going through New Hampshire and I think you’re way ahead of yourselves,” Henry Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi, told ABC News. “Take it one thing at a time.”