Imagine changing the rules of the Super Bowl in the middle of the third quarter.
But in interviews with U.S. News, many RNC members conveyed they were keenly aware that drastic eleventh-hour changes to party statute that threatened to undermine the will of the voters would never be broadly acceptable, and conversely, could inflict long-term damage on the GOP.
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"It's still important to them that the perception is that the process is fair," says Peter Feaman, a Republican National Committeeman from Florida. "Otherwise they know it's bad for the party."
Nonetheless, the RNC rules meeting that convenes on the eve of the Cleveland convention is setting up to be a high-stakes event that will establish the guidelines for how a contested nominating process would proceed, if Trump is denied the 1,237 delegates he needs to win on the first ballot.
Trump set off another flurry of controversy this week when he said a contested convention that wrests the nomination from him would incite "riots." But party leaders seem cognizant that any impression of chaos ultimately hurts their purpose.
"Nobody really wants a free-for-all, that's not good for the party," Feaman says.
The most plausible convention rule change being circulated is amending Rule 40 – a provision first uncovered by U.S. News two years ago – that states that any candidate for president "shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states" before their name is presented for nomination at the national convention.
More than halfway through the 2016 primary calendar, only Trump meets that requirement.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who currently trails Trump by about 250 delegates, has only secured the majority of delegates in five states – Texas, Kansas, Maine, Idaho and Wyoming. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has reached the threshold in only one – his own Buckeye State.
The Cruz campaign believes it will have banked the majority of delegates in eight states by June, but if it does not, the Texan's participation in a contested convention would necessitate a rule change. Kasich has virtually no chance of meeting the eight-state bar and is almost completely relying on a rule change to allow his participation.
Feaman says the most likely alteration to Rule 40 is lowering the eight-state threshold to five, which would mean Cruz would need only one more victory taking a majority of delegates to qualify.
"It's still going to be between Trump and Cruz," Feaman says. "I can't imagine the rule change is so draconian that you haven't had to win a state."
But Curly Haugland, a Republican National Committeeman from North Dakota, is proposing just that – a rule that would permit any candidate who has won at least one delegate to participate in a convention floor fight.
That means former candidates like Carly Fiorina, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Huckabee – each who picked up a single delegate in Iowa – could compete for the nomination.
Haugland, a longtime advocate of allowing delegates to determine the party's nominee rather than the outcomes of primaries and caucuses, is also attempting to convince his fellow members that all delegates are unbound and free to back whoever they want "on every ballot," based on a statement made in an RNC rules meeting a decade ago.
But Haugland is having trouble convincing others of that notion.
"He's wrong about that," says Randy Evans, a Republican National Committeeman from
Georgia, who claims he is legally bound by the primary result in his state.
"I am bound by the outcome. If you fail to do that in Georgia, it's a misdemeanor," he says.
Evans also poured cold water on the widely held assumption that all delegates are free to vote for whoever they want after the first round of balloting. More than 40 percent of delegates remain bound to their candidate on a second ballot, including those in Georgia. In Florida, delegates are bound for three rounds. Each state sets its own rule on when delegates can become free agents, but the fact that Florida's 99 are tied to Trump for three rounds – as a result of his primary victory – provides insulation against potential defectors.
Evans says there's no doubt that anti-Trump forces are "exploring every essence to try to stop him," but places the odds of a contested convention as just "1 in 3."
He falls in the camp that believes if Trump gets anywhere near the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch, it will be impossible to deny him the nomination.
"I think if you hit a point where the nominee is largely presumptive, they're largely ahead, they are the clear favorite, the inertia and the momentum will carry them to the nomination. Any attempt to change the rules would not be something the Rules Committee would do," he says.
This line of thinking is good news for Trump, who could find himself at a disadvantage in a contested scenario when granular knowledge of esoteric rules and chivalrous relationships with old-time party powerbrokers could become determinative.
But this is also why the identity of the delegates to the convention may become just as critical as who the delegate is bound to. Again, this process varies by state. In some places, the candidate can hand-select delegates to ensure loyalty, but in others, delegates are elected on a primary ballot or chosen through a party convention.
A.J. Spiker, who was a Republican delegate in 2012 when he was chairman of the Iowa GOP, noted that some delegates pledged to Trump – elected officials who fear the loss of power, mainstream party leaders who abhor his antics – won't be his natural supporters and floated that they could work to throw up procedural roadblocks to hurt him if he's not successful on a first ballot.
"The question is: Can Trump buy off enough people to keep people in line? These people are all for sale," Spiker says. "If you haven't made enough friends to pick up those votes, you don't win."
Spiker adds, ""I think if Trump goes to the convention short a delegate, he's not going to be the nominee. There's no way in hell."
Any fiddling with the rules will be watched closely by Trump's supporters, who believe the Republican National Committee is predisposed to subverting his position.
"Why have any rules as a guideline if you can change them all the time to suit the needs of the top of the RNC?" asks Diana Orrock, a Republican National Committeewoman from Nevada and a Trump delegate. "There is no doubt they want Trump out at all costs. I realistically don't see how Donald Trump cannot be the nominee, with the way that he has acquired the delegates, even if it's not the magic number. We're supposed to be doing the will of the people here."
But the easiest way Trump can avoid a clash over rules and a concern about disloyal delegates is to just keep winning
"All this talk about how the RNC has some overriding power, this isn't true. If Trump continues to win, I think that stop Trump movement is going to diminish," Feaman says. "I'm for whoever the winner's gonna be."