CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Republican National Committee has started preparing for a contested national convention, which would follow the primary season should no GOP candidate for president win enough delegates to secure the party's nomination.
While calling the need for such plans ultimately unlikely, several GOP leaders at the party's winter meeting in South Carolina told the Associated Press on Wednesday that such preliminary planning is nonetheless actively under way.
They stressed it had little to do with concerns about the candidacy of billionaire businessman Donald Trump, describing the early work instead as a necessary contingency given the deeply divided Republican field. With less than three weeks to go before the Feb. 1 leadoff Iowa caucuses, there are still a dozen major Republican candidates in the race.
"Certainly, management of the committee has been working on the eventuality, because we'd be wrong not to," said Bruce Ash, chairman of the RNC's rules committee. "We don't know, or we don't think there's going to be a contested convention, but if there is, obviously everybody needs to know what all those logistics are going to look like."
The RNC will hold a briefing outlining possible scenarios with party officials and the presidential campaigns today, said Steve Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire.
Discussion is expected to focus on logistics related to planning for the July convention in Cleveland, a task traditionally controlled by the presumptive nominee.
"I never thought we'd deal with this," Duprey said. "The best way to make sure we don't have some messy fight is if all the campaigns understand the rules and all the members of the RNC understand how this would play out going forward."
Added South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore: "The story of this election cycle has been 'expect the unexpected.' So we're getting ahead of it and preparing for every single scenario at the national convention. I don't think it's likely, but it's certainly possible. And you always plan for things that are possible."
To win the nomination outright, a successful candidate needs to secure more than half of all available delegates in the state-by-state primary contests leading up to the convention.
The last time a Republican convention opened without such a clear nominee was 1976, when Gerald Ford led in delegates but lacked a majority coming into the convention. There was plenty of drama as Ford beat back a challenge from Ronald Reagan and eked out the nomination on the first vote.
The last time there was a truly brokered convention, at which delegates turned to someone who didn't run in the primaries, was in 1952. That year, Democrats drafted Adlai Stevenson, who won the party's nomination on the third ballot.
In the GOP field this year, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have the edge in the most recent preference polls, much to the dismay of many party leaders who fear neither man is electable in a general election. The centrist wing of the party has yet to coalesce around an alternative to Trump or Cruz. Those fighting for that role include Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
While party leaders caution they don't think a clear nominee will fail to emerge from the glut of candidates, they argue it would be malpractice not to prepare for the prospect.
"You have to at least consider it," said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges. "I don't think that's what's going to happen, but it's always a possibility — at any convention, any year. But this time it's maybe even a little more real, seemingly real, because of the number of people we still have out there who could be collecting delegates."
Convention spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski said it is the job of the convention committee to have contingency plans in place, "the same way we did over the last several conventions with hurricanes."
Despite the early nature of the work, some party officials said it was unwise. They fear it could embolden conservatives already angry with the Republican establishment.
"Let's get through Iowa, let's get through New Hampshire. Let's give somebody a chance to win this thing before we try to figure out whether we're going to have a contested convention or not," said Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour of Mississippi.