Ben Carson is hitting the trail for Donald Trump this weekend, but don’t expect to see him at any rallies or town halls. In fact, don’t expect to see him at all — unless you’re a North Dakota Republican insider.
Carson is flying into Fargo to huddle with the state’s GOP activists, who are convening to elect 25 delegates to the Republican National Convention. They’re a small bloc of the 2,472 delegates who will ultimately pick the party’s presidential nominee when they meet in Cleveland in July, and Carson is meeting with them this weekend to make sure at least a few of them pick Trump when they get there.
Carson’s trip is the Trump campaign’s highest profile play yet for delegates, and it comes as the mogul arrives at a perilous moment: He may be lapping Ted Cruz at the ballot box, but Cruz is outmaneuvering him in the quieter — and equally crucial — hunt for loyal delegates.
Trump is virtually certain to arrive in Cleveland with millions more votes than Cruz or John Kasich, but he could still fall short of clinching the nomination outright. That would throw the contest to the delegates — and if Cruz packs the arena with supporters, Trump could watch the nomination slip away from him. And he knows it.
“I have a guy going around trying to steal people’s delegates. This is supposed to be America, a free America,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “You know, welcome to the Republican Party. What’s going on in the Republican Party is a disgrace. I have so many more votes and so many more delegates. And, frankly, whoever at the end, whoever has the most votes and the most delegates should be the nominee.”
Trump’s palpable frustration is a sign of how rapidly the hunt for delegates is overtaking the primary itself as the most critical battle in the 2016 GOP nominating process.
While Trump cries foul, Cruz is racking up support from prospective delegates across the country, even in states where Trump dominated the primary. From Louisiana to Georgia to South Carolina — all Trump victories — delegates and delegate candidates are lining up to back Cruz, who’s romped among the Republican activist class that tends to control this part of the process. South Dakota’s delegates and early contests in Iowa also appear to favor Cruz.
“I’ve been telling the Trump campaign for eight months now that they’re making a mistake by not reaching out to [Republican National Committee] members to establish relationships,” said one South Carolina Republican participating in the state’s delegate selection process. “He hasn’t done any of that. … That’s usually the kind of thing that presidential candidates do.”
None of this matters much if Trump grabs the 1,237 pledged delegates he’d likely need to win a majority vote on the convention’s first ballot. But if he doesn’t, the convention could go to further rounds of voting where many delegates are free to vote for a candidate of their choosing — and that’s where Trump could run into trouble.
In a contested convention, the South Carolina Republican added, “Every state delegation will turn to its state chairman and RNC members and say, ‘What should we do?’ There’s no loyalty. It would be very easy for those state leaders to cut and run on Trump.”
In state after state, GOP leaders report impressive efforts by the Cruz campaign to understand the intricacies of local delegate battles and maneuver to install its loyalists in coveted convention slots.
“There’s a definite gradation of their efforts. Cruz’s campaign is very active. They are actively trying to get Cruz-friendly delegates elected,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “Trump’s campaign has that as a goal but isn’t doing it as aggressively.”
“My gut tells me the more effort you put into this, the more likely to get the outcome you desire,” he added.
For Trump, April could make or break his efforts to build delegate loyalty. More delegates to the convention are up for grabs than in any other month on the calendar, with nearly a third of the convention’s 2,472 slots set to be filled. In addition, the schedule of statewide primary contests has slowed dramatically; only Wisconsin and New York will hold primaries before April 26.
At the same time, more than half the states will name some or all of their delegates to the national convention. In the first 10 days of April alone, votes are scheduled in Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota and South Carolina.
The Cruz campaign’s advantage is that the Texas senator’s base is full of the GOP’s most committed conservative activists — and his team is working to ensure that they turn out to the state and local party conventions.
“We are focused on, after we won a state, going back, making sure we get delegates to hold their commitment to vote for our campaign,” Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters this month. “That’s a laborious process.”
Cruz got thumped across the South by Trump, losing states like Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama, where his team once touted extensive grass-roots networks that were expected to slow Trump’s momentum. But where those networks fell short on primary day, they’re now dominating local and state conventions.
“It’s a big part of the process to make sure your delegates don’t get stolen,” Roe said. “In that process we make sure that we have slates of people that are supporting Ted Cruz fill those delegate slots. We make sure people that are bound to vote for us — people that are supporting Ted Cruz. So that’s county by county, congressional district by congressional district, state by state process that’s ongoing for the states that have already voted.”
Complicating Trump’s plans is the byzantine patchwork of rules that govern each state’s delegate selection process — ranging from congressional district conventions to statewide party gatherings to exclusive meetings of the local GOP executive committee. It often occurs in stages, with some delegates named in local elections, while a set of at-large delegates are picked separately.
“There are already slates being formed by the Cruz, Trump and Kasich campaigns,” said Steve House, chairman of the Republican Party of Colorado, which will select 34 delegates over the next two weeks in congressional district conventions and an April 9 statewide convention.
The widely varying processes create a complex set of decisions for campaigns, which must decide where to deploy resources and surrogates to snag delegates, while keeping one eye on the upcoming primary contests. Campaign advisers to all three campaigns have described a process of coaxing support from delegates that includes one-by-one persuasion and horse-trading. Delegates from Puerto Rico, for example, could get a commitment of support for statehood. Delegates from Ohio might respond to a promise on opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
House, the Colorado GOP chairman, said Trump and Cruz had tapped local surrogates to spearhead their delegate efforts. Kasich had deployed resources from his national campaign to persuade potential delegates as well.
“We’ve seen activity from everybody through surrogates or directly. They’re all working on ground games. They’ve reached out to ask questions to get delegate names and processes.”
So far, Kasich — who has staked his campaign on prevailing in a contested convention — appears to be less of a threat to Trump than Cruz. He was the lone candidate to send a surrogate to South Dakota last week, when the state picked 26 convention delegates. But his efforts didn’t immediately bear fruit, as most delegates told POLITICO they’d either remain neutral or support Cruz. He’s corralled support from important insiders in South Carolina, including the operatives who helped engineer the reelection of state party chairman Matt Moore last year, but so far few prospective delegates around the country have indicated publicly that they’re likely to support Kasich in an open convention.
If Kasich arrives at the convention in his best-case scenario — with wins across the Northeast and a share of delegates from the Pacific Coast states — he’ll still need more than 800 delegates to flip his way on a subsequent ballot. So far, the Ohio governor’s best argument is that he leads Hillary Clinton in head-to-head polling matchups.
His campaign leaders have openly speculated that Mitt Romney is angling to jump into the fray in a contested convention — citing his surprise endorsement of Cruz, just a week after campaigning with Kasich in Ohio.
“Mitt & a few nervous establishment types are trying to rush voters to someone who would lose like McGovern,” top Kasich strategist John Weaver tweeted last week. “Unless he has other motivations?”
In North Dakota, committeeman Curly Haugland said he hadn’t seen much evidence yet of a fight for delegates, though he expects the energy to pick up this week. Carson says he plans to make a heartfelt pitch for Trump.
“I’m really gonna be advocating for America. But the person that I feel, of the people who are running, who has the interests of America at heart most is Donald,” Carson said in a phone interview.
But even Carson may have a difficult time corralling support for Trump there.
That’s because the state’s GOP severely restricts who’s eligible to become a delegate. Applicants are graded based on their long-term support for the Republican Party — from making donations to participating in previous state conventions to having run for a seat in the state legislature. They’re ultimately picked by an 11-member panel that includes the state party chairman and North Dakota’s two national Republican committeemen.
It also requires all applicants to sign a pledge that could become difficult to honor in a primary increasingly defined by a movement by party insiders to shun Trump: “If I am elected to serve as a delegate/alternate to the National Republican Convention, I pledge to support the party’s choice of nominee.”
Quirks and nuances like that apply all over the country. For example, in Connecticut, candidates may submit their preferred slate of delegates — but all choices are subject to final approval by the state party leadership. In Wisconsin, the statewide plurality winner gets final approval of 15 “at-large” delegates, while all candidates get input, but not final say, on the 24 delegates selected at the local level. And in Wyoming, the list of potential delegates is set by a party-controlled nominating committee.
Similar restrictions apply in South Carolina, where delegate candidates must have participated in the state’s 2015 Republican convention. That could come back to bite Trump, who has spurned establishment Republicans since he entered the race and may now have to watch as they drive a process that could cast him aside in favor of another presidential nominee.
Of course, there’s a simple way for Trump to avoid the conflict altogether: earn enough support in the remaining 17 statewide primaries to effectively guarantee the nomination before delegates get a voice in the process. If he can capture the mandatory support of a majority of the convention delegates on a first ballot, all the machinations are likely to be for nothing.
“The smartest thing we can do,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump convention strategist, “is get to 1,237.”
Katie Glueck and Hanna Trudo contributed to this report.
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