A friend suggested that it would be interesting to "dig into the GOP bylaws and map out ways to pull out the nomination from The Donald."
So I took a dive into the Republican National Committee's rules and what I found was surprising: they're not that complex. To clarify, the rules are plenty complicated and convoluted, as are every organization's founding documents. But when it comes to the roll call vote of delegates, the rules are pretty simple.
(Bizarre aside: Rule No. 15 states that the right to participate in the GOP primary “shall in no way be abridged for reasons of sex, race, religion, color, age, or national origin.” I can’t remember ever seeing the word “color” included in one of those lists. I’m not sure what “color” even means for Republicans, given that “race” is already there.)
Under Rule No. 37, a roll call is made of the states by alphabetical order, with the head of each state delegation providing their delegate totals by candidate. Under Rule No. 16(a)(1), a state's delegation is bound to the results of that state's primary or caucus (as determined by the state's specific formula for awarding delegates), and any vote cast improperly is not counted. Under Rule No. 40(d), if this roll call results in a majority of delegates for any candidate, that’s the nominee. If not, the process repeats under Rule No. 41(e).
If the first ballot does not result in a majority, then -- well, it's uncharted waters. There is no process in the National Committee rules for what happens next, aside for subsequent roll calls being made. The rules don’t even explicitly allow for delegates to change their votes, this is simply implied: Rule No. 37(c) says that if a state fails to provide its delegate count when initially called during the roll call it will be called again at the end of the vote, and “[n]o delegation shall be allowed to change its vote until all delegations which passed shall have been given a second opportunity to vote” (implying that delegates can change their vote subsequently); Rule No. 40(e) states that if no candidate receives a majority of delegates at the initial roll call, “the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of the states be called again and shall repeat the calling of the roll until a candidate shall have received a majority of the votes entitled to be cast in the convention" (obviously, unless delegates could change their votes the roll call would just repeat indefinitely).
However, while the Republican National Committee rules are vague, the delegates aren't just bound by national rules; each delegation is also subject to state party rules and state laws regarding the primaries. The Green Papers, an Internet-ancient blog "Established during the previous Millennium," is a great resource for information on each state's primary rules. (The Frontloading HQ blog also has a great overview of state party rules, though they've only gotten through a little over half the states.) Most states only require their delegations to stick to their pledged candidates through the first or second roll call ballot, after which their delegates are released and become "uncommitted." A handful of states require their delegates to stay committed indefinitely (e.g., Iowa, Utah), or provide that only the candidate himself can release the delegates from their pledge (e.g., Kansas, Mississippi), the latter of which could come into play if, say, Cruz refuses to release his Kansas delegates to keep them from Trump. However, the vast, vast majority of delegates become free agents after the first or second ballot, so strategic non-release would be a highly situational consideration.
So the game here is simple: if you want to "steal" the election from Trump, there's no fancy Convention stratagem to be found in the bylaws. You just have to keep The Donald from getting to a majority of delegates before the Convention and on the first ballot, then trust in the establishment's ability to maneuver in the subsequent free-for-all against the man who gave us Trump: The Art of the Deal. (Truly an unparalleled dealmaker; The Sharper Image is still killing it on Trump Steaks, right?)
Keeping Trump away from the majority of delegates won't be easy. As of March 20, FiveThirtyEight.com has Trump at 97% of a pace needed to secure the nomination, 20 delegates short of a majority of current pledged delegates -- with Arizona's winner-take-all haul favoring Trump on March 22. How to keep Trump from winning any more primaries -- I'll leave that to the professionals (and what a fine job they've done so far).
A final thought: with the possibility that every delegate might matter, there's the issue of the 184 delegates awarded to candidates who have already dropped out. Rubio has the bulk of these pledged delegates at 166, or 13.4% of the total needed for the nomination. I've seen a few articles about what happens to these delegates, and I think by and large they've gotten the rules wrong. I made a quick and dirty chart below showing each state's rules for what happens to these delegates, alongside Rubio's delegate haul for that state. In general, the withdrawal of a candidate leaves his delegates uncommitted heading into the convention; Alaska is alone in automatically reapportioning the delegates. Where the states differ is in what specific trigger lifts the pledge from the bound delegates; some states release the delegates upon the candidate's "suspension" of the campaign, some after "withdrawal," etc. (Note this is talking about pre-Convention; the vast majority are released as uncommitted after the first or second ballot.)
I read 30 delegates -- from Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Wyoming -- that must be affirmatively released by Rubio. I read 29 delegates from states that use language that I think clearly captures Rubio's suspension of the campaign: Alaska ("drops out" -- these have already been reapportioned), Louisiana ("ends or suspends"), Nevada ("withdraws, suspends, or discontinues"), and Oklahoma ("no longer a candidate").
The remainder I am less sure about, because their rules use the term "withdraw," and it's not necessarily clear to me whether or not Rubio's suspension of the campaign constitutes having "withdrawn" under specific state rules. That is, do you "withdraw" when you stop campaigning, or does it require something more official? Kentucky, for instance, specifically defines "withdrawal" as providing "notice in writing by the candidate to the chairman of the Kentucky delegation prior to the first ballot." Few states are that precise, and I also wouldn't necessarily trust the practice of past conventions, as I imagine these rules are treated a bit more casually when the nominee is clear.
For what it's worth, Rule No. 16 of the Republican National Committee, which binds delegates to their primary results, does not apply "to delegates who are bound to a candidate who has withdrawn his or her candidacy, suspended or terminated his or her campaign, or publicly released his or her delegates." You could read this in one of two ways -- that the National Committee takes an expansive view on releasing delegates pledged to candidates who have bowed out or that "withdrawn" means something different from "suspended or terminated his or her campaign," given that terms are listed separately. Regardless, the state rules apply no matter what the national rules say, and if I had to bet, I'd say that Rubio has "withdrawn" for the purpose of these rules, and that his delegates are now uncommitted -- votes that could help thwart the effort to keep Trump below 50%.
The upshot to all of this is that, while there are a few wrinkles hiding in the state rules regarding whether Rubio's delegates are free agents and regarding whether a losing candidate can strategically hold their delegates from being released, these considerations are at the margins of the main strategy, simple but not necessarily easy: don't let Trump win a majority of delegates.
UPDATE: On March 24, 2016, Andrew Prokop at Vox.com wrote an article suggesting that the GOP could pursue a "nuclear option" and just suspend the national rules binding delegates to their state's primaries and caucuses. Mr. Prokop is dead wrong. First, every state's party rules -- and many state's election laws -- require delegates to remain bound through at least the first ballot. These rules would remain in effect. Second, Mr. Prokop confuses the Republican National Committee's standing rules with the rules of the Republican National Convention. At each convention, the GOP adopts a set of rules to govern the party until the next convention. The latter part of these rules are adopted as the standing rules of the convention as well as the temporary rules of the next convention. Rule No. 42 states, "Upon the adoption of the report of the Convention Committee on Rules and Order of Business, Rule Nos. 26-42 shall constitute the Standing Rules for this convention and the temporary rules for the next convention." These latter rules might be changed on a motion to suspend the Rules at the convention. But the standing rules of the party, Rules Nos. 1-25 -- which includes Rule No. 16, binding delegates -- would have to go through the normal Rules Committee process.