A contested veepstakes: How candidates may woo delegates with a running mate

Story highlights

  • A contested convention could even mean a separate vice presidential campaign
  • The prospect of a contested convention confounds the vice presidential process

(CNN)As Republicans increasingly head toward a contested convention and scrounge for delegates, there's still one wild card campaigns could deploy to get an edge: A running mate.

Traditionally, by this point in the election cycle, the likely nominee would have begun planning their coronation at the convention and gotten started on interviewing and vetting potential vice presidential nominees to share the spotlight. In fact, vice presidential nominees are often voted on by delegates before the presidential candidates, saving the top of the ticket for the last night of the convention.
    But this year is anything but traditional, and that means upending the usual way a nominee would go about picking a ticket mate as well as how the convention will go about confirming them.
    It could even mean a separate vice presidential campaign.
    Presidential campaigns may see an opportunity to gain an advantage by announcing a joint ticket well ahead of the convention or just days before. But they could just as easily wait until the main event in Cleveland in July, or leave it entirely up to the delegates.
    "Right now, they are in a death match to get to 1,237. That's it," said CNN delegate analyst Mike Shields, a former Republican National Committee chief of staff, referring to the number of delegates required to clinch the nomination.
    "I don't think there's any other considerations they have," he added. "If naming a vice presidential candidate will help them get to 1,237, they will. If it doesn't, they won't."
    The Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich campaigns did not answer an inquiry on whether they had begun the vetting process or would announce a running mate.

    'A big area of unknown'

    The prospect of a contested convention confounds the vice presidential process for two groups: the campaigns and the convention planners.
    For the candidates, it slows down the normal progression of the campaign.
    Katie Packer, the former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney who now runs an anti-Trump super PAC, said that well before Romney clinched the nomination, his team began meeting with the RNC to plan the convention and vetting running mates.
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    "I think that what I would be recommending to a candidate, if I were on one of these campaigns, is sometime between now and then, let's roll out somebody that not only helps us as a VP but will help us get to 1,237," Packer said.
    Candidates in the past have picked running mates who could help them win a key swing state or a key demographic. But with every single delegate taking on outsized importance, this year could lead a candidate to try to burnish strength on the convention floor.
    However -- and it's a big caveat -- that assumes that delegates will subscribe to the idea of a ticket. And it would require campaigns to box themselves into a plan and give up the possibility of a last-minute deal at the convention. That also would risk the embarrassment of delegates not confirming your chosen candidate.
    For the convention organizers, it means a potential headache.
    "We're entering a big area of unknown at this point in terms of how that will all work," said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer.
    In 1976, the last time there was a contested convention, Ronald Reagan's campaign wanted the Rules Committee to force President Gerald Ford to name a running mate, Shields said. Ford's campaign opposed this as they were floating multiple names from various states, helping his delegate counts from those states. If he had named a running mate, he could have lost support from the delegations in the states who didn't get their chosen candidate named as his vice president.
    Reagan ended up losing the delegate race by a close margin. Some people believe that had the VP rule prevailed, Reagan would have been the party's nominee that year, Shields said.

    Picking a VP

    Typically, the rules for nominating a vice presidential candidate are the same as for a presidential candidate. Usually on the penultimate day of the convention, delegates take a pro forma vote to rubber stamp the presumptive nominee's hand-picked running mate and then the new VP nominee gives a speech.
    This year, the convention can set up the nomination however it chooses. Spicer said it is almost certain the organizational committee would move the vice presidential nomination to last.
    Given the rules, delegates could decide to pick a vice presidential candidate entirely separate of the eventual candidate, sticking the presidential nominee with the will of the party.
    "It's not exactly a likely scenario, but it's possible," Shields said. "There are deals that can be struck and there are people that can be put on the ticket."
    And an enterprising politician could even run a campaign for vice president.
    "Nobody is currently running for vice president, therefore there are no bound delegates," Spicer said. "The vice presidential nomination will be up to the delegates, unless you have a presumptive nominee."
    The ambiguity places even more emphasis on the Rules Committee -- a group of 112 delegates representing each state and territory that will put together the rules governing this year's convention.
    They already will be deciding whether delegates have to choose between Cruz and Trump, who each have the requisite number of wins under last cycle's rules, or if anyone's name can be placed into contention. On top of that, they will get to decide how the vice presidential vote will go.
    Shields predicts that campaigns will be preoccupied with other concerns if a contested convention is shaping up, and may simply leak a list of names to the press as a signal of who'd they'd like to run with.
    But there's a risk in picking a running mate too quickly, said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and CNN delegate analyst.
    "I think that what's really important is that there be a thorough vetting of any potential running mate and that the time be devoted to doing that, and we've certainly seen instances in the past when that did not happen," Toner said. "You can't short-circuit the vetting process."