In recent weeks, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s fellow candidates and party leaders have increasingly touted an open convention—potentially the first in a GOP presidential race in 40 years—as a last resort to stop the polarizing candidate from representing the party in the general election.
With more than one-quarter of the remaining delegates at stake Tuesday night, Trump has an opportunity to strengthen his odds of winning the nomination prior to July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The New York City businessman and former reality TV star could also potentially strike a fatal blow to the candidacies of rivals Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Ohio Governor John Kasich with primary victories in their respective home states.
But even if he emerges victorious in Florida and Ohio, Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates needed to win the majority is not assured, said Fordham Law Adjunct Professor Jerry Goldfeder, a nationally-acclaimed election and campaign finance lawyer who serves as special counsel for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP. Trump will need strong results in the night’s three other primaries in Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina, which offer a combined 202 delegates, and upcoming primaries in California, New York, and Pennsylvania in the coming weeks and months.
“As we see the primary season unfold, we will have a better idea of whether he has a majority of convention delegates or close to a majority,” Goldfeder said of Trump. “Even if he has close to a majority, the question will be whether he can pick up the remaining votes at the convention.”
What victories in Florida and Ohio would show, if they occur, is Trump has “come a long way” in securing the kind of wide-ranging support necessary to take the nomination, Goldfeder added.
Open conventions, where delegates vote until one candidate has a majority, were commonplace in presidential politics during the first half of the 20th century, Goldfeder said, but the increase of party primaries since the 1960s have made them a rarity. President Gerald Ford’s convention win over Ronald Reagan in 1976 represents the last time a major party’s nomination remained undecided entering the convention.
“What usually occurs is that, once a candidate starts winning, he or she continues winning in such a way that compels the other candidates to drop out,” said Goldfeder, who is on Hillary Clinton’s National Finance Committee and New York’s Leadership Council.
Thus far, Trump has won 14 primaries and amassed 460 delegates. He needs at least 777 delegates, or 55 percent of those remaining, to win the nomination outright. His closest competitor, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, needs 867 more delegates, or 62 percent of the remaining delegates.
Trump could conceivably receive the type of momentum boost Goldfeder alluded to on Tuesday night, when 367 delegates are in play across five states.
Current polls suggest Trump will win Florida’s 99 delegates in a rout over Rubio and finish second to Kasich in Ohio, where 66 delegates are available. Such a result in Ohio, Goldfeder said, could potentially keep Kasich’s candidacy alive in the event of an open convention.
Tuesday also features primaries in Illinois (69 delegates) and Missouri (52 delegates), states that allocate delegates by congressional districts, and North Carolina (72 delegates), which awards its delegates proportionally based on statewide voting. Polls show Trump ahead in all three states, though Cruz trails by less than 10 percent in the most recent Missouri polls.
Prior to this week, Cruz had criticized talk of an open convention as “the establishment’s way of snatching this nomination from the people.” On Monday, Cruz reversed course, telling reporters he would support a convention vote if both he and Trump failed to receive 1,237 delegates.
“He understands he would not be the candidate to whom delegates turn in an open convention,” Goldfeder said of Cruz’s initial view on an open convention. “Therefore, he is framing the discussion in such a way to try to get a majority before the convention.”
Rubio, once considered an establishment challenger to Trump, needs 77 percent of remaining delegates to win the nomination. During a press conference this weekend, he rebuked the frontrunner for his repeated calls during campaign speeches for supporters to physically assault protesters. Rubio said he planned to support whoever emerged as the party nominee, before acknowledging, “But it’s getting harder every day.”
History suggests that even though Republican leaders say they are fearful Trump will destroy the party, other candidates will ultimately back him if he is the nominee, Goldfeder said.
“That is essentially what occurred in 1964, where most of the party pooh-bahs backed Barry Goldwater after lambasting him until he secured the nomination,” he said. “Why should we presume it would be different with Trump? And even if there is a bit of bloodletting at an open convention, I would suspect most, if not all, Republicans will put their differences behind them and focus on November.”
One final mystery remains if an open convention occurs: Would Trump run as an independent if he doesn’t win the nomination?
Trump’s window for doing so is rapidly closing, Goldfeder noted. To have his name on the ballot as an independent in every state, he would have to start circulating petitions pretty soon. In Texas, for example, he would need to submit 80,000 signatures by May 9. Most states require candidates to submit petitions in June, July, or August.