Political observers have wondered for months whether Donald Trump’s unconventional, “political outsider” campaign would put him at a disadvantage if the Republican presidential race were to come down to the wire. Now, a fight stemming from the complicated process of selecting convention delegates suggests it has.
The Trump campaign is currently in a tizzy over a development regarding Louisiana’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. While Trump narrowly defeated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the state’s primary earlier this month, a recent Wall Street Journal report suggested that Cruz will head to Cleveland with more Louisiana delegates than the real estate mogul, prompting Trump to accuse Cruz of trying to “steal” delegates.
“It’s the first bit of concrete evidence that we’ve got that the Cruz campaign is organized and that the Trump campaign is playing catch-up,” said Josh Putnam, a lecturer at the University of Georgia who tracks delegate rules at the blog FrontloadingHQ. “This process is going to go on to other states where similar battles are going to be fought under different state party rules.”
Party elders recently have rallied around the idea that the best way to stop Trump is to try to deny him the 1,237 delegates required to win the GOP nomination outright at the July convention. If they’re able to prevent Trump from hitting that threshold, most delegates will be allowed to vote for another candidate after the first or second convention ballot.
So now that it appears a rival campaign has laid a better foundation, the Trump campaign has to master the art of wooing delegates who will remain loyal him. In a scenario where the party’s gathering in Cleveland is not a Trump coronation, but rather a brokered convention, Trump’s ability to close that gap may determine whether he walks away with the GOP nomination.
“We have a process coming up where a convention of delegates is going to meet in Cleveland and one of the things that those delegates are going to do is pick a candidate.” Curly Haugland, a longtime party official from North Dakota, told TPM. “The delegate picks a candidate. The candidate doesn’t pick the delegates.”
What happened in Louisiana is complicated. The state offers its own quirks in a patchwork system where the process for choosing delegates varies greatly depending on the party rules of each state. After a close primary race, Trump and Cruz each emerged with 18 delegates. However, the state has five unbound delegates, and an additional five were pledged to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose withdrawal from the race freed his delegates up to change allegiances.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, it’s believed that those 10 additional delegates prefer Cruz to Trump. Adding insult to injury, Cruz loyalists were also able to secure five of the Louisiana’s six slots on the all-important convention committees that will be in charge of the rules and credentialing at the Cleveland convention.
Trump responded in his signature fashion: threatening a lawsuit over Twitter.
Barry Bennett, Trump’s delegate advisor, then suggested that the campaign would seek to de-certify Louisiana’s delegates. As of late Monday, Bennett said the campaign would file a challenge with the RNC at its meeting before the national convention, arguing that Trump supporters were shut out of a meeting that explained how delegates would be selected.
“They had this meeting and they didn’t invite our delegates,” Bennett told the New York Times.
Disputes over delegates are typically settled at the level of the state party, said Richard E. Berg-Andersson, a political analyst for delegate-tracker blog The Green Papers. However, Berg-Andersson said that under certain circumstances a delegate dispute can be brought to the RNC if it appears that the state party has done something that breaks its own or the national GOP’s rules.
For what it’s worth, the Louisiana GOP has said it’s “confident” it followed party rules, and experts tell TPM it’s likely the Cruz campaign merely benefitted from relationship-building they did months ago.
“The Cruz campaign did this leg work in 2015. They forged these relationships and identified supporters and potential delegates last year,” Putnam told TPM. “When they were doing that, it wasn’t a function of them trying to swing a nomination. It’s more of an insurance policy.”
Trump appears to have recognized that he needs to go shopping for that same insurance.
In addition to Bennett, Trump has hired Paul J. Manafort, a veteran of myriad GOP presidential campaigns, to be his convention manager. Trump also has been flying surrogates to obscure locales to court party representatives, according to Politico. Ben Carson, for instance, met with GOP activists in Fargo, North Dakota.
Delegates are typically local party officials, operatives or long-time activists, and there are certainly places around the country where these types would prefer Trump. However, each state has its own standards and process for picking them. Some use local conventions. Others chose delegates by committee.
The question is whether Trump’s campaign is plugged in enough to mobilize his supporters at local and state GOP gatherings who determine who goes to Cleveland as a delegate.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how open or how covert this process is,” Berg-Andersson said. “You may see things bubble to the surface that will tell you something is going on. But I have a feeling a lot of this is going to be off the floor in the various conventions, in the hallways, back rooms…a lot of it’s going to be behind the scenes.”