As we crawl towards the halfway point of this execrable primary season -- nope, we’re not quite halfway to the end yet! -- there is one question that may come to haunt the Donald Trump campaign if he does not ultimately win the nomination: Is it already too late for him to seed state delegations with enough loyalists who will vote for him in the event the party convention in July requires multiple ballots to pick a nominee?
Before we get to that, though, a quick primer: While Trump has won the most pledged delegates in the state primaries so far, the party insiders who will actually serve as those delegates in Cleveland are only now being selected at state party conventions. While those delegates are required to vote for Trump on the first ballot at the national convention, they are free to switch their votes if the party needs to go to a second ballot or more to select a nominee. That is why it is so important for Trump to win the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination before the convention starts. Fall short of that, and anything goes.
That 1,237 number is what Ted Cruz and John Kasich are trying to deny Trump by staying in the race despite his large lead. It is Cruz in particular who is not only well positioned to deny Trump delegates in the remaining primaries; additionally, he's cultivated a well-organized corps of loyalists who are gaming the state conventions and hunting up delegates who are either unpledged or committed to candidates who have dropped out of the race, and talking them into switching their loyalties to the Texas senator. His campaign already pulled off a bit of a coup in this regard in Louisiana and is working on other states, such as Colorado and even Massachusetts, despite the fact he won only 9.6 percent of the popular vote in the latter’s primary.
Pause for a second to savor this irony. Ted Cruz, possibly the only Republican more personally loathed by loyal party members than Donald Trump, is also the party’s best hope for keeping Trump off the ticket for the general election. It’s a little bit like if your doctor tells you a raging case of herpes is the only thing that can clear up your chlamydia.
A well-thought-out presidential campaign plans for the state conventions and the politicking necessary to secure delegates in a closely contested nomination fight. It is yet another irony of these primaries that Cruz, the least likable human being to walk the earth since the ancient Persians sealed Xerxes I in his tomb, has run the smartest, most disciplined and organized campaign among the entire GOP field. If he wasn’t such a hateful dick, he might have the nomination sewn up by now.
But back to Trump. He responded to Cruz’s Louisiana move the way he knows best: By going on Twitter and threatening to sue the Republican National Committee for being unfair. On Thursday he met with RNC chairman Reince Priebus, who gently explained that securing the nomination requires more than just showing up, insulting minorities, and tweeting insults at Megyn Kelly. There are actual rules to the contest that Trump has been leading for the last eight months
Trump allegedly suggested to the aides who accompanied him to the meeting that they had failed to do their jobs and get on top of the delegate wrangling. In truth, his campaign seems to have woken up to the problem at least a few days before when it hired Paul Manafort, a longtime GOP operative who worked for Gerald Ford during the GOP’s last brokered convention, in 1976. Manafort’s job will be to play catch-up on the delegate-harvesting front, trying to keep the Cruz campaign from peeling away enough to deny Trump that magic 1,237 number before the voting in Cleveland starts.
Failing that, Manafort will need to find enough loyalists who will stick with voting for Trump on a second ballot and beyond. That will leave the campaign free to concentrate on convincing enough delegates on the convention floor to switch their votes to Trump after the first ballot.
To be sure, there are other ways Cruz can try to get around Trump, including stacking the convention’s rules committee with his own people. The question is whether, while playing catch-up on wrangling delegates, the Trump campaign also has the time and resources to game out and plan for some of those other possibilities. Cruz’s team has been working on this since 2015, and probably studying up on it for longer than that. Whether Trump can adapt may well determine his chances of winning.
And if he can’t adapt, we can look forward to a tantrum of enormous proportions in Cleveland. Buckle up, folks.