The rules of a game often determine its winner. With the approach of the Republican Party’s first presidential nomination caucuses and primaries, party rules are already playing a key role — and just may lead Republicans on a wild nomination ride that won’t end until the last day of its convention in Tampa.
The Republican Party is an association rather than a government entity, making its national rules the equivalent of a constitution when it comes to its nomination process. To be sure, states may want to change the dates of a primary, state parties may change the manner of their nomination contests and members of Congress may pontificate about the process. But for the final word, it’s the Rules of the Republican Party.
Here’s the party’s problem: Those party rules directly conflict with the conventional interpretation of the meaning of upcoming primaries and caucuses, and next summer may well lead to challenges to seating delegates. According to explicit language in their rules, Republicans can’t bind delegates from a state to vote only for one candidate by a winner-take-all rule, for example, nor are they supposed to allow non-Republicans to vote in their contests.
Given the rebellious spirit within the Republican Party embodied by a tea party movement that demands respect for the Constitution, party leaders can’t just wish away departures from the rules. Indeed, the national convention in Tampa just might take us back to a different political era: one in which delegates act on their power to choose the nominee that they think best represents the Republican Party — even if that is someone other than the apparent winner through state primaries and caucuses.