In a Republican presidential race defined by a contest between the establishment and outsiders, the role of party insiders has become the latest controversy.
"I could see a scenario in which Donald Trump, having done well in the primaries, gets to the convention with the largest block of delegates, but short of enough to be nominated," former Trump adviser Roger Stone told the Washington Examiner.
"In this scenario, establishment types like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio join forces, probably for a Rubio-Kasich ticket, to steal the nomination from Trump," Stone speculated.
Trump expressed concern about a contested convention in December. "I think I'd have a certain disadvantage," he said. "The dealmaking, that's my advantage. My disadvantage is that I'd be going up against guys who grew up with each other, who know each other intimately, and I don't know who they are … These kind of guys stay close. They all know each other. They want each other to win."
Republican insiders have raised the possibility.
"GOP rules allow for ... 'superdelegates,' with more than half of state parties exercising the option to make their chairman, national committeewoman and national committeeman automatic delegates," Republican strategist and Bush official Karl Rove wrote last year. "These uncommitted delegates, 210 in all, could be the most fluid force in the convention if no candidate has locked in victory."
He is referring to members of the Republican National Committee, the party's governing body. Each state comes with one committeeman and one committeewoman, in addition to all state party chairs. Party rules also allocate three to Guam, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Two months after Rove's column, Trump continues to lead national polls, as well those in most early nominating states. Where he is not the leading candidate, maverick Texas Sen. Ted Cruz holds the title. Party leaders and observers dismissed the idea that RNC-aligned delegates could sway the convention away from them and toward an establishment candidate.
"With due respect to Karl," RNC communications director Sean Spicer told the Examiner, "there are 168 members of the RNC, not 210." Those members comprise 7 percent of the estimated 2,472 delegates who will be seated at the convention, slightly less than the 9 percent Rove estimated.
Secondly, convention rules obligate those RNC members to vote according to the result of primary elections held in their states.
"Karl is dead wrong, which is demonstrated if you read the delegate packet that was issued," said Virginia Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell. That packet, Blackwell told the Examiner, "points to a section of the rules to which people have not paid attention. It says that all of the delegates shall be bound by the results of the primary."
"There aren't any delegates in a state that has a primary that are not going to be bound," Blackwell said. "Karl's article is just dead wrong. He didn't understand the rules, and suggested there are 210 superdelegates who are free to vote as they please."
Specifically, a cover letter to the packet states, "Each state's delegation (other than delegates elected on a primary ballot) is bound by the results of the state's presidential preference vote."
That rule was fortified by amendments made at the Republican convention of 2012, ironically to handicap insurgent candidates in the future. It was a response to the phenomenon of Texas Rep. Ron Paul winning nearly all of the delegates in states like Maine, Minnesota and Nevada, in spite of losing wider initial contests in those states.
This year, experts observe, that rule could function in a manner opposite the way it was intended, by preventing party leaders from voting against a candidate of whom they don't approve.
"The convention rules make it clear that elected members of the Republican National Committee are bound by the same rules and have the same rights and privileges as every other delegate," GOPAC President David Avella told the Examiner.
For that reason, Avella said, he objects to using the term "superdelegate" altogether, because it fails to differentiate the Republican Party from the Democratic Party. The latter explicitly uses the term, and does not have a rule for binding their votes.
"The composition of 'superdelegates,' as set out by the Democratic Party, are present and former officials, donors, celebrities and prominent campaign staffers who are appointed … after voters have made their choice for [elected] delegates," Avella said.
Even if there were no rule, it is conceivable the vote would go no differently. In at least one of the states the rule was intended to manage, the "superdelegates" had already agreed to vote in line with their base.
"We unilaterally agreed to be bound ... by the caucus vote," Minnesota RNC member Chris Tiedeman told the Examiner. "If Cruz gets 33 percent, Rubio gets 33 percent, and Huckabee gets 33 percent, each would get a vote from one of us on the first ballot," Tiedeman said, in reference to votes from the state's three RNC members.
Nonetheless, Trump's former adviser expressed pessimism that the rules of the process could still be rigged.
"Trump strikes fear into the heart of the lobbyist class, because they would have no influence in his presidency," Stone said. "We saw how the establishment rigged the rules against Ron Paul in 2012. They are highly likely to try to do the same to Trump."
Yet it was that very rule change, Blackwell emphasized, that will prevent party insiders from using "superdelegates" to much effect. "The secretary of the convention is not going to recognize a vote total for candidates that is different from what party rules or state law mandates," he concluded.