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March 21, 2012 11:55 AM Binding?

By Jonathan Bernstein

I want to go back again to the question of whether delegates are bound or not, and why and how it matters.

Josh Putnam had a very good post recently explaining (again) the distinctions between bound and unbound, and pledged and unpledged, delegates. And in an atmosphere in which AP, network, and newspaper delegate counts have typically been including projections in caucus states based on the precinct caucus straw polls, which may or may not be predictive of eventual delegate counts, it’s very helpful to have Josh constantly pounding the message that these distinctions matter.

Except…

I also strongly agree with Jeff Greenfield’s analysis (via Goddard), which reminds us that in contested conventions, delegates are only bound to support their candidate on the question of nomination. They are not bound to support the candidate’s position on rules or credential challenges — and in a true contested convention, it is quite likely that such questions would be the key votes, with the eventual nomination vote determined by the earlier decisions. Moreover, Greenfield is correct that one of those rules changes could be to unbind bound delegates. There are, if I recall correctly, state statutes involved, but in my view there are neither political nor practical legal remedies to a convention doing whatever it decides to do.

Now, there are limits to this, and I think Greenfield doesn’t do a good job on that part. A campaign with a properly functioning delegate operation should have extremely loyal delegates. So it’s very, very unlikely there will be a successful challenge against Romney, even if he’s not particularly popular around convention time and only has a bit over the minimum number of delegates. Greenfield refers to examples from the McGovern, Carter (1980) and Ford conventions, but the real lesson of those three test votes was that you’re not going to beat someone who has the delegates. Presumably the supers would be the most likely to flip, but if that was a live possibility then it’s highly unlikely they would remain publicly pledged in the weeks leading up to the convention.

So: I’m very interested in whether delegates are chosen or not, but all that concerned with whether they are formally bound or not — because I don’t think it’s the formal binding that really matters. What really matters, I suspect, is whether the delegates were slated by their candidates or not.

Of course, all that is really only relevant if there’s to be a contested convention, and that’s not going to happen this time around. But if it does ever happen in the future, that’s what I’d keep in mind.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.