A Vice Presidential Free-for-All?

How the Republican delegates in Cleveland could nominate Donald Trump but not his chosen running mate.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a possible running mate for Donald Trump. (John Minchillo / AP)

Donald Trump still has a chance to capture the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot at the party’s national convention this summer, thanks in part to his commanding victory in New York on Tuesday.

Unlike past GOP nominees, however, he might not have carte blanche to pick his running mate.

Delegates at the convention in Cleveland will vote separately on the nominations for president and vice president, and there is a key difference in the rules governing each vote: Although most of the delegates will be bound by their states to vote for a certain presidential candidate on the first ballot, none of them are required to vote for any candidate for vice president.

That distinction opens up a Pandora’s Box for Republicans, as they decide how to fill out their national ticket in November. It’s possible, and even likely, that Trump will announce an agreeable, consensus pick for vice president, and in a vote for party unity, the delegates will ratify that choice.

But here’s another possibility: Trump heads into Cleveland having just barely secured the 1,237 “pledged” delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. In a last minute bid to flip delegates and stop Trump, Ted Cruz persuades Marco Rubio to be his running mate and secures the support of most of his delegates. Because of Cruz’s success in packing delegate slates at the state level, a majority of the convention delegates actually support him, even though 1,237 are required by party rules on vote for Trump on the first ballot. Who, then, do they vote for on the vice presidential ballot—Trump’s choice, or Cruz’s?

“This is such a crazy election cycle, I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” replied a chuckling John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and noted Trump antagonist, when I posed this question to him. “This is so unique, different, and unusual that anyone who really thinks they can give you a straight answer doesn’t understand how crazy the situation really is.”

In an ordinary election year, both parties would have clear leaders by now—if not presumptive nominees—and vice-presidential speculation would be ramping up, along with the private vetting of potential running mates. But on the Republican side, all three remaining contenders have turned their attention to delegate-wrangling, and there has been little talk of vice-presidential nominees. The situation is raising concerns among party insiders who fear that the eventual nominee won’t have time to properly vet their running mate—a process that has taken months in recent elections. Reince Priebus, the party chairman, has said the Republican National Committee could use its research team to help campaigns with vetting. And later this week, the Bipartisan Policy Center plans to release a set of recommendations for the vice-presidential selection process from a group of veteran political advisers who worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

“There’s a lot of homework that has to be done, and that needs to be done before the convention,” said Charlie Black, a former McCain adviser who helped with the bipartisan report. “In the old days, the potential nominees would do that homework and then they wouldn’t announce the VP until the day after the nomination ballot. So we may be in that situation again.”

In the last open Republican convention, in 1976, Gerald Ford announced his selection of then-Senator Bob Dole only after he was formally nominated for president. Four years later, Black was an adviser to Ronald Reagan when the former California governor returned to the convention hall at midnight on the evening he was nominated to put up George H. W. Bush for vice president. Reagan only did that, Black recalled, to squelch rumors that he was about to ask Ford, the former president, to run alongside him.

So far, the GOP veep speculation has been a game of elimination as much as anything else. Rubio and Kasich have each tried to rule themselves out—Kasich said there was “zero chance” he’d be Trump’s running mate and that he’d be the worst vice president ever. Cruz has said he has “zero interest whatsoever” in running with Trump. And nobody thinks Trump would be anyone’s vice president. This could all be political posturing, but the Republican primary has been so ugly at times that it’s hard to see any of the top contenders team up. “Given this experience, I don’t think you’ll see a pairing of any of these three,” said Black, who is now advising Kasich on his delegate strategy. “Kasich doesn’t want to be VP. He wouldn’t take it. I think Trump and Cruz dislike each other so much that it’d be very hard for them to get together.”

Trump told the Washington Post earlier this month that he was likely to pick an experienced politician as his running mate—a statement that might have been aimed at soothing the worries of GOP establishment types bent on preventing his nomination. “I would 95 percent see myself picking a political person as opposed to somebody from the outside,” Trump said. A couple weeks later, he told USA Today that Rubio, Kasich, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin were among the names he was thinking about. Walker has endorsed Cruz and would also figure to be a top contender if the Texas senator overtakes Trump in Cleveland. Carly Fiorina and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina could also be logical picks for Cruz. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is another possibility for Trump.

Black predicted that Trump would wait until the convention to announce his running mate, while Cruz could unveil his choice earlier to try to sway undecided delegates in his direction.

Whether either of them gets their pick will be up to the delegates. Jason Doré is the executive director of the Louisiana GOP as well as an unpledged delegate who intends to stay neutral until the convention in Cleveland. “From a practical perspective,” he told me, “whichever candidate you were on board with—you would go with their team.”

“What I’m looking for is to unify the party coming out of the convention, because whoever the nominee for the VP and the president is, we have to win an election in November,” Doré said. “And to do that, we need a unified party.” If Trump gets to 1,237, he added, “it’s a moot point. I think he’ll get his nominee. I’d expect you’d have a party unity moment.”

Though he’s working for Kasich, Black said basically the same thing. “When it’s over, it’s over, and most people realize that,” he said. The delegates who vote for the nominees are party regulars, and “even people who don’t like Trump,” Black said, “are certainly going to want to do their best to help us win.”

All of this assumes a Trump that sticks to his commitment to pick someone experienced, or at least someone seen as qualified for the job. And with Trump, you never know. “If he wants to nominate Barbara Walters for vice president, we’re going to have a problem,” Black quipped.