With front-runner Donald Trump eyeing a narrow path to clinching the Republican nomination outright, and Ted Cruz and John Kasich’s road even slimmer, a contested GOP convention this July – and specifically the attending delegates – could decide everything.
But who are the delegates? And perhaps more important for the candidates, how can they be swayed?
These questions become more important with each passing contest. Should Trump or any candidate not attain the necessary 1,237 delegates to win before the Cleveland convention, most delegates would become unbound from their candidate if voting goes past a first round.
And that's where personal allegiances would come into play.
The idea of leaning on or even bribing a delegate to shift his or her decisive vote may seem like something straight out of “House of Cards” -- or the 2008 movie "Swing Vote" -- rather than real life. But there is precedent.
In the contested Republican convention of 1860, which chose Abraham Lincoln over William Seward, cabinet positions are believed to have been promised to leaders in vital states such as Ohio in order to break the deadlock and give Lincoln the majority.
The last contested convention – the 1976 Republican convention that chose President Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan – is believed to have been won in part by Ford offering delegates White House visits, promising patronage positions, and offering to speak in the delegates’ states.
In 2016, with more money in the game and one billionaire running for the coveted prize of Republican nominee, the stakes have never been higher. Many delegates already are “unbound” – no longer tied to ex-candidates – and many others would be released after the first round of voting at the convention.
“Imagine if you’re the last delegate who is the deciding vote. Donald would call and say ‘How about you come to Florida for a couple of days with me?’ Ted Cruz is going to say ‘Have you seen all of Texas?’” former House Speaker and 2012 presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich told Fox News.
There are no rules from the Republican National Committee banning the practice of trading gifts for delegate support, and state rules governing ethics would not be applicable in these situations. So in that sense, the gloves are off.
“I’ve told every delegate to be prepared for every person in America to have your email and cell phone number,” Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, told FoxNews.com. “Our delegates this year fully expect to face enormous pressure.”
However, some legal experts believe there are obvious legal pitfalls that would limit the extent of any favor-trading. It may be that delegates can be wooed, but not necessarily bought.
In a blog post, political law attorney Brian Svoboda writes that the federal criminal code bans candidates from promising to appoint anyone to a position “for the purpose of procuring support in his candidacy.”
Additionally, while wining and dining a candidate may be OK, flat-out bribery may be out, Svoboda says.
“Multiple provisions prohibit individuals from offering cash or things of value in exchange for votes. And, finally, the campaign finance laws create avenues for identifying and prosecuting unreported or misreported contributions,” Svoboda writes.
The delegates expected to face such pressures are themselves a mix of local politicians and party volunteers, many of whom haven’t experienced the intense heat of national politics. Those delegates are still in the process of being selected.
“It’s a mixture of elected officials and longtime activists and volunteers,” Moore said.
Raul Blanche, who was a delegate candidate for Marco Rubio in New Hampshire, told FoxNews.com he first met the senator when working as a campaign coordinator for a local congressional candidate. Blanche met then-candidate Rubio at a fundraiser, and later at a book tour he helped organize.
“I came to know him personally as a Cuban – there aren’t too many Cuban Republicans in New Hampshire,” he said.
Blanche, an engineer by trade, said a colleague at work is a delegate for Trump, as well as a state representative. Blanche, who no longer plans to go as a delegate, said his concern was not so much bribery, but blackmail.
“I’m too old to be bribed, I’m a principled guy and I live a clean life,” Blanche said. “I’d be more concerned about blackmailing and airing dirty laundry.”
Doug Hartmann, an Illinois real estate broker and delegate for Trump, said he was contacted after buying a “Make America Great Again” hat from Trump’s store. After being asked if he would like to be put on the ballot, Hartmann said he and his wife went door-to-door, braving the December chill, to get the necessary 100 signatures.
“It’s the first time my name’s ever been on a ballot,” Hartmann told FoxNews.com. “It’s an interesting challenge, I’ve watched it on TV from the Cronkite years and I never quite knew what they did.”
As for the potential pressure from other campaigns should a contested convention arise, Hartmann said he’s frustrated with the Republican Party and intends to stick with his guy.
“I’m an ol’ crusty fella, and I’m going to stick with Trump, no matter what,” he said.
While some free-agent delegates may be seen as malleable, others will enter with clear allegiances in place should they become unbound. For instance, Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is on the business mogul's list of delegates in New Hampshire.
Moore expressed hope that delegates would vote with their minds on the general election rather than be swayed by unsavory tactics by candidates.
“I hope all national delegates use common sense and don’t accept any form of benefit. That would corrupt the process,” Moore said. “This needs to be an honest system, not a system that is corrupted.”