Donald Trump greets the crowd in North Charleston, SC on Friday Feb. 19, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump could be stripped of  South Carolina delegates

There are not many more important things to keep in mind when considering what might happen during the Republican National Convention than to remember that the convention voting is not a Super Bowl game, held in a neutral location with neutral judges. It is a game of Calvinball, to hearken back to the fictional, hopelessly complex game played in “Calvin & Hobbes” — a game made up on the fly, taking place in Calvin’s house and where Calvin already has a winner in mind.

So keep that context in mind as we consider this report from Time magazine. It suggests that the 50 delegates won by Donald Trump in South Carolina’s primary earlier this year may suddenly no longer be bound to support him at the convention. Why not? Because he broke his promise to support the Republican nominee, if it’s not him, during an interview earlier this week.

From Time’s Zeke Miller:

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore gave credence to the anti-Trump claims.

“Breaking South Carolina’s presidential primary ballot pledge raises some unanswered legal questions that no one person can answer,” he told TIME. “However, a court or national convention Committee on Contests could resolve them. It could put delegates in jeopardy.”

The pledge states that the candidate “affirm[s] that I generally believe in and intend to support the nominees and platform of the Republican Party in the November 8, 2016 general election.” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he might not. Ergo: Maybe those 50 delegates should be loosed to the winds, since Trump backtracked.

Donald Trump will almost certainly be the delegate leader heading into July’s Republican National Convention – but that doesn’t mean he’ll win the nomination outright. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

You may remember that a similar issue came up in 2014 in Mississippi. That year, Chris McDaniel had the most votes in the first round of voting in his primary with Sen. Thad Cochran (R), but not a majority. Facing a run-off, he worried that Democrats might cross party lines to back his opponent.

The language in Mississippi was different, applying to voters in an effort to prevent the sort of cross-pollination McDaniel feared. But as we reported, it was almost certainly not enforceable. (A federal judge weighed in to that end in a decision that ended up being thrown out on a technicality.)

What’s more, it’s hard to see how you can punish someone for having changed his mind after signing a statement dealing with his state of mind in the moment. “I generally believe in and intend to support” is not an assertion that the belief and intention won’t change. It’s an assertion relative to the moment of signing. If Trump can be held to account for having changed his mind, then he can easily close the loophole by changing it back. (And Trump would happily do so, we can safely assume.) It’s either at the moment or it’s not.

But this is all beside the point, really. Remember: Calvinball!

Or, put another way by Taniel, one of the more astute observers of the convention process this year:

In other words, if the convention is willing to unbind South Carolina’s delegates from Trump based on this excuse, they’ll happily unbind his other delegates for whatever other reasons might exist. Or, working in reverse, if they’re happy to rewrite the rules after the fact, why not just toss South Carolina’s delegates back into the pool.

Earlier on Thursday, Ted Cruz advocated for the sanctity of Rule 40, the mandate that only those candidates who have a majority of delegates in at least eight states might be eligible as nominees. Cruz hasn’t hit that mark yet (though Trump has), but he can expect to. John Kasich can’t.

But that’s another rule that’s already being bandied about as one which might get refined up or down. It was refined, after all, in 2012 — to Mitt Romney’s benefit. Calvinball.

Where the Calvinball analogy breaks down is in the fact that this game is not played in Calvin’s house between him and his stuffed tiger. Instead, it will be broadcast to the world, and a lot of people — including fans of Donald Trump and other Republicans whose votes the party needs in November — will be watching. Ripping away delegates on a pretext like the one above would not go over well, and at the end of the day, a lot of Republican leaders would rather not be seen as having stolen the nomination from the guy who got the most votes.

For example, here’s the same Matt Moore quoted above, following up on Twitter:

The only thing worse than making a game that only you can win is if you still somehow end up losing.