For all his boasting about his business acumen, it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump stinks at the nuts and bolts of running a campaign. His campaign has failed to execute the most basic functions of organizing and slating delegates. Even his own kids didn’t know when and how to register or change their voter registration and are unable to support their dad in New York's April 19 primary. That said, he is masterful at driving and deciding the narrative of this campaign. And, his narrative, that the wooing and collecting of delegates is “rigged” and “unfair” is a powerful one with GOP voters. A national Marist poll taken in early April, found a narrow majority of Republicans, 52 percent, believed that that if Trump has the most delegates going into the convention in Cleveland, but does not have enough to win on the first ballot, he should still be the party’s nominee. This argument is especially resonant at a time when the “establishment” and the “system” are as unpopular as ever with rank and file GOP voters. The question now is whether this narrative can be enough to get him the nomination, or if the GOP delegates will ultimately prize rules over PR.
To be sure, Ted Cruz has the facts on his side when it comes to slating GOP delegates to the convention in July. He has outworked, out hustled and out organized the Trump campaign at every turn. The fact that the Trump campaign has recently hired GOP delegate wrangler Paul Manafort and, just this week brought on former RNC staffer/Scott Walker campaign manager Rick Wiley, suggests they know they've got work to do to get their delegate strategy in shape.
Moreover, for all the twists and turns this campaign has taken, there has been an enduring resistance to the “establishment.” And, nothing screams “establishment” more than a group of hand-picked party people sitting around a convention center and choosing a candidate who came in SECOND place with votes and pledged delegates to be the nominee of the party. Those who support the current process, however, argue that the whole point of delegates is to ensure that the candidates and their supporters - not the party bosses or the RNC - pick the nominee. That is an argument that the Cruz team and his supporters need to start making more effectively if they want to blunt Trump’s message.
Another important and overlooked element in this battle for delegates is that these 2500 or so representatives coming to Cleveland represent more than just their candidate or their party. They also have families. And neighbors. And work colleagues. What they do in Cleveland will follow them back home and stay with them for a good long time. The Pittsburgh Tribune’s Salena Zito and her colleagues surveyed all 162 of Pennsylvania’s delegates - 54 of whom are unbound on the first ballot. They found that most of the delegates were committed, on their first ballot at least, to support the candidate that carried their district. In other words, they hold themselves accountable to the people in their hometowns - not in Washington or elsewhere. If Trump wins big in Pennsylvania, it is easy to see many of the currently unbound delegates support Trump on the first and even second ballot as well.
There is also a risk, however, that the Trump campaign and his surrogates heavy handed tactics actually turn off these voters. The Washington Post reported that Trump supporters have sent threatening emails to delegates. This isn't going to help make this already pressure-filled experience for delegates any easier. And, it risks turning off the very people that they need on their side.
Then there is the impact that this floor fight will have GOP prospects for uniting by November. And, on that issue, “establishment” Republicans are divided. One camp, despite their dislike of Trump, believes that a floor fight will only further divide the party and, as one said to me, “will leave deep, deep scars.” The other camp doesn’t dispute that a floor fight will be divisive. But, they fear that Trump at the top of the ticket will be even more damaging. Their concern is that Trump will not only get thumped in November, but that he will destroy the GOP brand in the process.
There’s also the distinct possibility that regardless of the ultimate outcome in Cleveland, neither camp will be able to claim “victory.” As one Ohio Republican I spoke with on a recent trip to the state told me, “There’ll be a riot in Cleveland if Trump wins the nomination and a riot if he doesn’t.” It’s hard to see how Cruz or Trump has the capacity to unite the GOP after such a serious battle. Yes, the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president will help bring many GOPers back into the fold, but it’s also likely that these wounds simply stay raw and unhealed.
Moreover, if Republicans think that denying Trump the nomination will solve their problems, they forget that the guy is neither a magnanimous winner nor a gracious loser. Forget about Trump running as an independent in the fall. He won’t have the organization or time to get on the ballot in most states. But, he’s got something more important than ballot access: Twitter and TV. He will be happy to continue his campaign against the GOP via social media. Do we really think that if Trump loses he’ll go underground never to utter his views again? Do you think that if he loses a floor fight he’ll warmly embrace Ted Cruz? I doubt it.
Trump’s success has been driven almost exclusively by his ability to frame the narrative of this campaign. While he may get outmaneuvered on delegates and floor votes, and continues to show only millimeter deep grasp of issues, he has been able to run circles around his opponents on the PR front. As one smart GOPer explained to me, Trump’s framing of the delegate rules as unfair will “either work or become tiresome and whiny.” Whether it works is also incumbent on Trump’s ability to win these upcoming primary contests. The more winning he does, the harder it will be to tag him as “whiny.”