(CN) – Donald Trump’s loss in the Wisconsin primary Tuesday night now makes a messy, contested Republican National Convention this summer a near certainty.
The party’s current frontrunner now has to win at least 60 percent of the remaining delegates to reach the magic number of 1,237 and secure the presidential nomination outright.
But for a candidate who recently told The Washington Post that he’s winning primaries, and plans to govern, by force of personality, a brokered convention and even the delegate selection process that precedes it is fraught with peril.
And this is something the candidate himself appears to only recently have realized.
The light bulb went on for Trump after the Louisiana GOP appeared this from the candidate’s perspective to take his victory in the state’s March 5 primary, and through the delegate selection process, hand it to Sen. Ted Cruz.
On the night of the primary, Trump narrowly won the popular vote and took away 18 delegates. Cruz came in second, but also received 18 delegates. The remaining five of the state’s delegates were awarded to Sen. Marco Rubio, who later dropped out of the presidential contest after a miserable showing in his home state of Florida.
At Louisiana’s subsequent state GOP convention, party leaders declared Rubio’s delegates up for grabs, and Cruz’s campaign was able to effectively exploit state rules and not only secure all of those delegates, but five other previously uncommitted delegates as well.
Trump vowed to file a complaint with the Republican National Committee over what transpired in Louisiana, met with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in Washington, and has since been scrambling to strengthen his hand in the state by state delegate selection process.
On March 29, Trump opened a Washington, D.C. office to run his campaign’s delegate operation, and hired a veteran political operative, Paul Manafort, to serve as the campaign’s convention manager.
With that, pundits and political insiders agree, the real work of trying to save his nomination and avoid a damaging convention showdown began.
It’s All In The Details
The process of determining who will be seated as a delegate at the GOP’s national convention in Cleveland is tedious and predicated on rules that vary from state to state.
Keith Downey, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said while outsiders may see the rules as confounding, they are the result of a long process of negotiation, and have been on the books, certified by the party’s national committee, since October 1.
“The process we’re operating under [as a state party] is not new, it’s not changing, and it’s not subject to the whims of the establishment or any other group,” Downey said.
“In Minnesota, just like all the other states and U.S. territories, we are operating within the definitions of binding rules that were approved by the national party six to nine months ago.
“In our case, among the first things we agreed to was allocating our delegates proportionally by virtue of the results of our caucus,” Downey said.
It’s all fairly straight-forward, to hear the chairman tell it.
But then things get interesting, and the mechanisms that are important definitely favor political insiders who know how to play the game.
That’s why Trump got caught flat-footed in Louisiana, and why the candidate who enjoyed phenomenal success as a political outsider, may be hard-pressed to have his candidacy survive the convention process.
How is this possible?
According to Downey one has to understand there’s a distinction between the number of delegates awarded as a result of a primary or caucus, and the election of the individuals who will fill those delegate spots.
Marco Rubio won the Minnesota Republican caucus, and received the lion’s share of the state’s delegates, netting 17, while Cruz, in second place, received 13, and Trump, 8.
“We divide the majority of our delegates between congressional districts, and each of those districts has three, which are awarded again, proportionally based on how the individual candidates did in the district,” Downey said.
“In addition, we have 14 statewide delegates who are allocated proportionally based on the statewide vote,” he said.
In five of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts, Rubio, Trump and Cruz were each awarded one delegate based on the support they received.
In the remaining three, encompassing the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and their surrounding suburbs, Rubio was particularly strong, winning two delegates in each congressional district, while Cruz was awarded one in each.
The delegates awarded on election night aren’t real people. They are slots that people will eventually fill.
This is where the rules vary greatly from state to state, and where an expertise in the delegate process begins to become critical.
In Ohio, for instance, the process is fairly straightforward. In December 2015, each of the candidates who expected to compete in the March 15 primary filed their own slate of delegates with the state GOP, and then on the day of the primary, the voters cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich won, and because the state contest was winner-take-all, he got all 66 of the delegates on his slate, and they are bond to him on the first ballot at the convention.
In Hawaii, by contrast, Trump, Cruz and Rubio all walked away with delegates (Trump 11, Cruz 7, and Rubio 1), and their respective Hawaiian campaign leadership teams are now responsible for appointing delegates and alternates for Cleveland.
Andrew Walden, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Presidential Caucus Committee told Courthouse News that under Hawaii GOP rules, delegates must be appointed prior to the upcoming Hawaii Republican State Convention, scheduled for May 21.
“Delegates to the state convention do not vote on or alter the delegate slates proposed by the campaign,” Walden said. “For every five delegates and alternates named by a campaign, at least one must be from a county with a population below 500,000.”
Taylor Ferrell, a longtime member of the Tennessee Republican Party and former deputy finance director for Sen. Lamar Alexander, said The Volunteer State’s 58 delegates are divided into three categories: there are 27 congressional district delegates (three for each of the state’s nine congressional districts); 28 at-large delegates; and three additional delegates who are Republican National Committee members.
Following the state’s March 1 primary, congressional district delegates were awarded proportionally, based on the respective candidate’s performance in each of the districts.
In addition, any candidate who received more than 20 percent of the total statewide vote received a proportional share of the at-large delegates.
Speaking of that pool of delegates, in Tennessee 14 of the individuals who fill those spots are elected directly off the ballot.
For someone to run as a delegate on behalf of a candidate, they have to obtain a letter of consent from the respective campaign. It is left entirely up to the individual campaigns to decide who they will place on the ballot.
The other 14 spots are appointed by the state GOP’s executive committee, “with the advice of the campaigns,” Ferrell said.
While the three additional RNC committee members are added into the at-large number for determining the proportional distribution of delegates, they are uncommitted and may choose to support any of the candidates receiving statewide delegates.
Trump won Tennessee with about 39 percent of the total statewide vote and walked away with 33 delegates, including 15 of the statewide delegates.
Cruz won 16 delegates (10 at-large and six congressional district delegates), and Rubio received 9 delegates (six at-large and three congressional district delegates).
In Minnesota the process starts with county and legislative district conventions, where representatives are selected to participate in to the congressional district and statewide conventions.
The county and legislative district conventions are going on now. They are followed by the state’s congressional district conventions, in late April, and that’s where the majority of delegates selected for the national convention are chosen.
“In Minnesota, anyone wanting to be a delegate at the national convention must run for one and only one candidate’s delegate spot,” Downey said.
“In other words, if you want to be a Rubio delegate, you have to declare that you want to run for a Rubio delegate spot at that congressional district convention, he explained.
“We’re not electing at-large people and then figuring our whose delegate slot they take,” he said. “The same thing applies when we get to our state convention on May 21.”
The Nitty Gritty of Local Conventions
Downey said unbeknownst to most people, each local convention in every state has its own nominating committee and a set of rules guiding how people will declare for candidate delegate spots and what information they have to present to the courty’s nominations committee and those who will ultimate elect the delegates.
“So, let’s say I am declared for a Rubio delegate slot and I win. By our rules, I am bound to vote for Rubio on the first ballot,” Downey said. “But who knows whether I may actually want to support Cruz or Trump on a subsequent ballot at the national convention.
“That’s why, if I am Donald Trump or Ted Cruz’s campaign, clearly I am going to be trying to get my supporters elected to those Rubio slots,” he added.
Downey said he’s seen it reported in other states that the Cruz campaign has an awesome ground effort going to secure as many as delegates as possible. The same is true in Minnesota, he said.
“The Cruz campaign has been more organized on the ground, so in theory, they are better positioned to take advantage of some of these things at the convention,” he said.
According to Downey, Cruz, Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul had organized campaigns on the ground in Minnesota long before the primary and caucus season began.
“Obviously, Cruz’s organization is still active here, as is, I suspect, at least some of Carly Fiorina’s organization. After all, she’s endorsed Ted Cruz and has been campaigning for him,” he said.
This begs the obvious question with the caucus now long behind them, just what are these organizations doing in Minnesota?
“There are a couple of ways to answer that question,” Downey said. “The first thing you have to address is, ‘What have they already done?’
“At our precinct caucuses, not only did we hold the presidential preference vote to determine the allocation of delegates, we also elected, from each precinct statewide, the delegates to the local and county and legislative district conventions.
“So if the campaigns who were active on the ground before our caucuses were successful in getting their candidate’s supporters elected as delegates to these local district conventions, the odds are greater that the people sitting in the chair at the later congressional district or state convention, who will be voting on our national delegates, will be supportive of their candidate,” Downey said.
“A lot of this work was actually done not in the past two or three weeks, but over the last six to nine months,” he said.
“The second thing is, as a campaign, you want to get a slate of delegates who’ll support your candidate lined up and ready to run,” Downey continued.
“They look for people who are reputable and known within that congressional district perhaps it’s the congressional district chair or other known leader or elected official, and they try to recruit these people to their cause and to run for those national delegate spots, where they know these people will support their candidate,” he said.
“There’s a lot of work going on right now to build slates of delegates to vie to go to the national convention,” Downey continued.
“At the same time, people who want to be delegates are giving a lot of thought to where they stand: They’re thinking, ‘Maybe I support Trump, but I know there are other strong Trump supporters who will run and get elected as Trump delegates, so maybe it’s better if I run as a Rubio delegate, so I can get that second ballot vote and ultimately cast my vote for my preferred candidate.”
“And it’s not just Trump supporters who are making those calculations. I’m sure Cruz supporters are thinking the same thing, and the campaigns know this is going on.
“So that’s what the campaigns do, on the ground, after a caucus or a primary,” Downey said. “It’s literally on-the-ground work, getting people who support your candidate to run for those delegate slots.”
The chairman said the Trump campaign “never was super active in Minnesota,” and that absence especially compared to Cruz and others “has kind of carried forward.”
“They do have a campaign staff here now and they are working and operating, but I think until recently, whether it was due to internal polls or something else, he saw his time and efforts better spent elsewhere,” Downey said.
He contrasted the Trump effort to those of the Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina and Rand Paul camps, who he said “literally had designated people in all 127 of our local county and legislative district units, actively recruiting people to come to caucus and vote and actively recruiting people to raise their hands to serve as delegates to the local conventions.”
“Now, obviously, Fiorina and Paul dropped out of the race before our caucus, but by laying that organizational groundwork months, and in some cases, a year in advance, they had a distinct, built-in advantage in Minnesota because they had that infrastructure and organization and team in place and it was close to statewide in some of their cases.”
“This is just the way it goes,” Downey said. “This is the process that was certified by the RNC for our state back in October. We are not deviating from that because if we do, our delegates won’t be seated. You have to honor the agreement.”
Downey said people disparage the process and talk about it as if it were “unseemly,” but he contends they’re only showing how little they know about politics.
“For those of us who have been involved in the process, this is just absolutely the way it works,” he said. “To those people who criticize the rules or how a person who is holding a Rubio sign at the convention might actually support Cruz, I say, that’s just the way it is in local politics.”
On To The Convention
Because Minnesota binds its delegates on the first ballot, the state delegation will march into the convention hall in Cleveland with 17 people committed to Marco, 13 to Cruz and 8 to Trump. After the first ballot, as most everyone knows, if no candidate secures the nomination, things begin to become a free-for-all.
Minnesota is one of several states that says after the first ballot, its delegates are free agents who can vote for whomever they want.
Other states take a different approach.
Under Tennessee’s rules, for instance, “delegates are bound to their candidate for the first two rounds at the convention or until their candidate either withdraws or releases their delegates,” Ferrell said.
Downey said he believes there’s one state that binds its delegates for three ballots and other states don’t bind there delegates at all, allowing them to vote for anybody they choose right from the start.
But there’s yet another wrinkle to all this. Of course.
After the brouhaha over his Louisiana delegates, Rubio sent letters to the GOP chairmen in the states where he won a share of delegates he won 166 in all and informed them he wanted to keep them.
Representatives of Rubio’s now suspended campaign said the former presidential hopeful wants to retain his delegates in order to keep his options open in the event of a contested convention.
Among those who received such letters from Rubio were the party chairs in Oklahoma and Alaska.
Downey said he too has received such a letter.
“My first response and there’s no acrimony here is that our delegates aren’t actually Marco Rubio’s delegates,” he said. “He doesn’t control them, per se. He can’t literally tell them what to do.
“Our people, our voters, elected 17 delegate slots for Marco Rubio and our process essentially guarantees what he’s asking for, which is that we would hold our votes for him on the first ballot,” Downey continued. “As I said, we don’t have a choice in that regard. We defined our process and it was certified by the RNC.
“Those 17 Rubio delegates are going to show up at the convention and vote for him on the first ballot so long as he’s on the ballot,” the chairman added.
That’s the rub nobody is talking about if Rubio isn’t on the first ballot for some reason due to not meeting a given threshhold in the national convention rules or for any number of other potential reasons some states, among them Minnesota, will allow his delegates to become free agents right away.
“Some states might require their Rubio delegates to vote for March Rubio even if he isn’t on the first ballot, in which case that are effectively spoiled votes they are not going to be counted in the mix,” Downey said.
“But right now, the way we deal with our delegates in Minnesota, if their candidate is not in the running, those delegates are unbound and they can vote for whoever they want even on the first ballot.”
“Again, there’s nothing unseemly about this, and of course, the national convention rules may be drafted in such a way as to affect what I just said. But right now, that’s the way it is so let the politics begin!”
Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the Tennessee GOP said his state’s delegates will not be free agents if for some reason their candidate’s name isn’t on the first ballot. They will cast their promised votes for their candidate anyway.
“We’ve been told by the RNC that the recording secretary will just tally the delegates for those candidates in nomination should this hypothetical occur,” Leatherwood said.
On to Cleveland
Downey said in early April, when he spoke to Courthouse News, he had no idea how many supposed Rubio delegates might actually be Cruz supporters waiting and hoping for a second nominating ballot at the national convention.
“Our congressional district conventions start April 23, and occur over a four-week period they are held on four successive weekends, and that’s when the actual delegates will be selected,” he said.
“At the end of the process, I’ll have those delegates’ names, and I might have an inkling of who they’ll ultimately support in the event of multiple ballots but remember, they may be keeping their cards close to their vests,” Downey said.
“Alternatively, there could be congressional district conventions that require, through their own specific rules, that people running for a particular delegate spot declare who they would vote for on a second ballot.
“In that case, someone who stands up and wants to be elected a delegate might look around and say, ‘Hey, this is a Trump room,’ and therefore declare, ‘I’m going to vote for Trump on the second ballot.’ But you still don’t really know. So, at least for now, I have no idea how all that’s going to play out and how the support on multiple ballots might go.”
Downey himself, as state GOP chairman, is one of the state’s three automatically appointed statewide delegates. Under Minnesota’s rules, he and the two other automatically appointed delegates a national committeeman and a national committeewoman will each be assigned to support either Trump or Cruz or Rubio.
“Now, in terms of what our subsequent or other roles are at the convention, that’s yet to be determined,” Downey said.
“We will meet shortly after the state convention, in May, and elect a designated speaker for the delegation going to Cleveland, and we will elect two people to the rules committee of the national convention, two people to the credentials committee which might be an interesting committee too because it determines who can be legitimately seated at the convention and vote,” he said.
A portion a the meeting will also be devoted to discussing delegation strategy – whether to have one, and if so, how the delegates will approach voting on multiple ballots and the party platform and other issues.
“After that, I would imagine in would be quite fluid leading right up to the convention and even on the floor of the convention, driven mostly by the comments and decisions of the candidates who are still in the running, but also by the will of the delegation from our state,” Downey said.
He said convention watcher can expect to see ” all kinds of things happening.”
“You can see splits within big delegations with chucks of delegates sticking with candidate X versus Y; you can conceivably see an entire state delegation binding together and supporting one candidate, and trying to leverage that influence; you can literally see groups of states working together,” he said.
“There are some logical clusters of states that might work together. For us it would be Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota. We tend to do a lot together and know each other quite well,” Downey said. “So maybe there’s an upper Midwestern bloc that comes to the fore at the convention. Or an Eastern bloc, or a Western bloc. All kinds of dynamics can occur, and of course, as state party chairman, I will have a vested interested in making sure the results are the best possible for the country, first, and for our state, second.”
As for efforts by various campaigns to try to sway his delegation’s vote at the convention, Downey said he’s already having internal conversations about that with other members of the state party.
“I think we just need to stick with doing what we think is best for the country and what’s best for us to get the most conservative candidate nominated and win.
“I want us not to be compromised and I want us to come back from the convention, as the Minnesota delegation, knowing that we did our job to represent all the Republicans who voted in the state, and to represent the absolutely best interests of our country and our state,”” Downey said.
“In the event that there are discussions and deals and side deals and all those kinds of things … so be it. But at the end of the day we need to be able to come back from that convention with our heads held high, knowing that first and foremost, we did the right thing. That’s the tone I am trying to set,” he said.
“This is a big deal. This is the presidency. This is the leader of the free world. This is the direction of our country for the next four years. … deals and side deals and all kinds of stuff be what they may, in the end you have to do the right thing,” Downey said.
Supporters for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump react as Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Bethpage, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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