Normally, being a delegate to a national political convention is an expensive honor. Sure, delegates and alternatives get to go to some high-end parties and enjoy some gourmet hors d’oeuvres and top-shelf hooch and maybe hobnob with a few celebrities. But typically they defray their own travel and hotel expenses. In a “normal” year, they are, after all, pretty much TV extras who get decked out with colorful hats and signs to mug for the cameras during the big speeches. One’s as good as another, so nobody has an incentive to foot the bills, do they?
Of course, 2016 is not a normal year for Republicans. If a “contested convention” occurs, the identity and loyalties of individual delegates could matter a great deal for the first time in 40 years. There’s also vastly more money sloshing around the presidential nominating contest than there was four decades ago.
So it’s potentially of great interest to know that there do not seem to be many, if any, bright-line restrictions on delegates receiving tangible assistance from campaigns, or more likely, from super-pacs or other shadowy sources. Matea Gold and Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post explain the basic rules, or lack thereof:
Under regulations established in the 1980s, delegates cannot take money from corporations, labor unions, federal contractors or foreign nationals. But an individual donor is permitted to give a delegate unlimited sums to support his or her efforts to get selected to go to the convention, including money to defray the costs of travel and lodging.
A candidate’s campaign committee can also pay for delegate expenses. Some legal experts believe a campaign could even cover an all-expense-paid weekend prior to the convention to meet with senior staff at, say, a Trump-owned luxury golf resort in Florida.
And that’s before they get to Cleveland. Another expert quoted in the Post piece was blunt:
The candidates “will be in a bidding war for delegates,” said Brett Kappel, a veteran campaign-finance lawyer who has represented Democrats and Republicans. “They’ll live like kings at the convention.”
This could quite possibly involve more than a nice fruit basket or swag bag in each delegate’s hotel room, when you think about the moneyed interests who care deeply about the outcome in Cleveland. Aside from Trump, with his hundreds of millions of dollars and his hotel empire, and Cruz, with his rich and passionate theocrats, there are Charles Koch and Karl Rove, each of whom has expressed a strong interest in encouraging delegates to put aside the views of a few million primary voters and pick a winner for November. Throw in (theoretically) Sheldon Adelson, who might have need of a friendly Justice Department, and you could have enough resources to make an entire convention roll over and expose its belly.
Perhaps this would not even seem strange to a party so deeply committed to the idea that political spending equals political speech — i.e., that money not only does but should talk. Still, an open bidding war for delegates won’t go over very well to the voters in and beyond both parties who think political insiders are already bought and paid for, and thus shouldn’t have their hands out for gratuities.