June 17, 2024

Nitty-Gritty Battle for Delegates: Trump’s Advantage

NEW YORK (AP) – Put aside the polls, fundraising numbers or Donald Trump’s name recognition as metrics for his early dominance of the Republican presidential race. He has what may be the most important advantage in the race: he had a leg up on winning the delegates to clinch the GOP nomination.

Although the counting of delegates will not begin until voting begins next January, Trump has many years on his hands in the race to win their votes. Republican parties of many states they made changes to their rules before the 2020 election by adding more winner-take-all contests and requiring candidates to earn higher percentages of the vote to claim any delegates. All of those changes benefit a delegate, a position Trump held despite their increased legal risk, blamed his party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 elections and turbulent years of his presidency.

As Trump makes another run for the White House, he has focused on the looming battle for delegates, according to people with knowledge of his effort who requested anonymity to discuss strategy. He held regular meetings with state party chairmen, involved in many of his leadership races, and hosted delegations from Republican parties in Nevada, Louisiana and Pennsylvania at their homes in Florida and New Jersey.

More than 2,000 party activists, insiders and elected officials are among the delegates who will cast votes at next summer’s Republican National Convention to formally select a nominee.

Scott Olson via Getty Images

The moves are a sign of how Trump’s team is focused on the crucial, if less glamorous, aspects of winning the GOP nomination. That’s a marked change from his first bid for the White House in 2016, when his team of rookie staffers were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of delegate contests and were sometimes outmatched by better-prepared rivals, notably Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

That doesn’t seem to be happening this time as election experts say few other campaigns seem to be able to match Trump’s work over the years.

“They are asleep at the switch,” said election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg.

More than 2,000 party activists, insiders and elected officials are among the delegates who will cast votes at next summer’s Republican National Convention to formally select a nominee. The rules governing how delegates are chosen are set by state parties, who have until October to submit their plans for next year’s elections.

Many of the proposed changes emerging in state parties appear to benefit the former president.

In Michigan, where the state’s GOP is increasingly loyal to Trump, the party’s leadership voted this year to change the state’s long-standing process of allocating all its presidential delegates based on an open primary election. Under a new plan widely expected to benefit Trump, 16 of the state’s 55 delegates will be awarded based on the results of the Feb. 27 primary. The remaining 39 will be distributed four days later at closed-door caucus meetings of party activists.

Other Republicans are trying to move away from primary elections toward party-run caucuses, where Trump’s support among the party’s grassroots activists could put his rivals at a disadvantage.

In Idaho, one of the most Republican states in the country, a new law passed by the state legislature ended the presidential primary process by moving the state elections to May as lawmakers sought to consolidate the voting calendar. The party’s state central committee decided last month to hold caucuses on March 2 instead.

In Nevada, the state Republican Party is waging a legal battle to try to hold a party-run caucus instead of a state-run primary election. The chairman of the party, Michael McDonald, said that he had spoken to Trump’s team about the process and the ongoing law but had not heard from the campaign of his strongest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Other changes in the works would reduce the potential for any last-minute maneuvering at the conference.

At least two states, Louisiana and Colorado, are proposing changes this year that would require delegates to vote for their assigned candidate during the second round of voting at the national convention in case no candidate has a majority on the first ballot.

Trump senior adviser Chris LaCivita said the campaign has had conversations with state parties around the country about their delegate selection plans and is keeping a close eye on what his opponents are doing or not doing.

As an example of the effort, LaCivita cited a one-day trip he made to Las Vegas in May to address a gathering of hundreds of Nevada Republicans.

“We’re aggressive on every level and on every front,” he said. “We don’t leave anything to chance.”

In 2016, Trump blocked his way to taking the GOP nomination despite his campaign being disorganized by Cruz’s team. When Cruz swept all of Colorado’s 34 delegates after a process in which party insiders vote at a series of caucus meetings, Trump wrote an ed-ed complaining about a “rigged” system. He threatened to sue after the primary in Louisiana, where he won a larger percentage of the vote, but Cruz was going to pick up more delegates.

This time, Trump is taking steps to build ties with party insiders who could be delegates in 2024, making phone calls, or in some cases hosting large private dinners, like the one he hosted in Iowa in May attended by the state’s attorney general, local legislators and precinct organizers. At a similar reception to Trump in South Carolina there were 75 people, including the state Gov. Henry McMaster, state legislators and party activists packed into a sweltering tent.

“From a tactical perspective,” LaCivita said, “Where we are today is a departure from where the campaign was, a similar campaign, in 2016.”

DeSantis has veterans from Cruz’s 2016 campaign working for him.

Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s campaign manager, is advising Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting the DeSantis campaign, but the organization is not involved in delegate strategy and does not plan to be, according to a person familiar with the effort who was not authorized to disclose internal strategy.

Sam Cooper, DeSantis’ campaign political director and another veteran of Cruz’s 2016 bid, said the Florida governor’s staff is closely monitoring developments in the states regarding delegate selection plans.

The DeSantis campaign is working to identify local party activists who could serve as delegates but is also specifically courting state lawmakers, who are typically active in their local GOP groups.

“They represent us on the ground,” Cooper said. “But also they are close to the process.”

The campaign boasts that more than 250 state legislators have endorsed DeSantis. The governor himself is very involved, Cooper said, and speaks to legislators directly in one-on-one calls or, as he did in June, in a Zoom call with more than 100 legislators across the country.

Cooper noted that DeSantis has made his own trips to speak before state and local GOP officials, appearing at 10 events in eight states since March and spearheading fundraisers for Republican groups.

The DeSantis campaign declined to specify any states where the campaign has provided feedback on a delegate selection plan, but Cooper said the campaign “feels very good about the map.”

“We have not seen a state party or a state make a move that is so far off the wall that it could only support one candidate or the other,” he said.

One potential opening for a challenger like DeSantis is California, which has 169 delegates up for grabs, more than any other state.

Thanks to changes passed by Democrats in the state Capitol, California’s primary contest will be March 5, requiring the state GOP to change its delegate plan to comply with national GOP rules for early contests.

The changes, which the state Republican Party is due to consider and approve later this month, are set to award delegates proportionally to a candidate’s share of the vote, rather than awarding all delegates to the winner.

That could give a candidate seeking second place an opportunity to gain ground – especially someone like DeSantis, who has made a point of campaigning in the state.

Bryan Watkins, chief operating officer and executive director of the California GOP, said the organization has been in contact with Republican campaigns about the proposed change.

“As the state with the most delegates in the country, the CAGOP wants California to be a place where Republican presidential candidates invest their time talking to our voters and earning their support,” he said in a statement. “So we appreciate the campaigners’ feedback and views on how best to achieve that goal.”

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples in New York, Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, Gabe Stern in Carson City, Nevada and Adriana Gómez Licón in Miami contributed to this report.

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