Donald Trump's wrong about GOP delegates and the system. Here's why

Caitlin Huey-Burns breaks down the delegate battle


The Republican presidential candidates have figured out that they’ll need 1,237 delegate votes to win the nomination. Ours is a federal system, so delegates are chosen according to rules of state Republican parties. Despite all too familiar broadsides against “Party Elites,” Donald Trump has hired one of the best convention managers on the Republican side to compete in the hunt for unbound delegates.

Republicans haven’t had a contested convention in 40 years, so operatives with those skills  are being brought back. It’s reminiscent of Yoda in Star Wars decrying that no one teaches the Jedi Arts anymore.

The three Republican candidates are putting together teams of professionals that are compiling information on all of the target delegates.  This could be a long list given the possibility of multiple ballots, and in the age of the Internet would include quite a bit of material, such as biographical data, likes and dislikes, friends and enemies, and views on issues. The process is continual, which means multiple contacts and “baby sitting” to monitor evolving attitudes. Delegates can and will change their minds and good delegate operations have a plan to deal with that.

Not surprisingly, the media have focused on financial inducements and potentially corrupt offers to delegates.  Donald Trump recently joined the fray, boasting that he has the best “toys” to woo delegates and again calling the system “corrupt.”

My experience working with GOP delegates at numerous conventions tells me they are far more interested in saving the world than making a buck.

There will surely be talk of jobs offered, benefits to relatives and the like, but this is overstated and misses the point that most delegates don’t seek the position to engage in petty graft.

There are also numerous laws involved that campaigns would violate at their peril.

Delegates are interested in picking the next president far more than incremental monetary gain. My experience working with GOP delegates at numerous conventions tells me they are far more interested in saving the world than making a buck.

Likewise, threats and blandishments will be episodic at best. Unless Tony Soprano is elected from New Jersey, this tactic is unlikely to be widely utilized. In addition to Trump’s broadsides, his supporters have floated ideas such as publishing recalcitrant delegates’ hotel room numbers. These tough guy statements will not be effective in a world of saturation media coverage.

Most delegates are paying attention to the campaign and the issues so it is not surprising that the candidates will appeal to them on the basis of key issues and philosophy. There will be single issue delegates (pro-life, pro-gun rights) and the candidates will want to talk up those positions. Beyond that, we can expect the campaigns to ferret out the hierarchy of issues, i.e. which do delegates consider the most important. The campaigns’ issue experts will provide regular briefings on foreign policy, economic policy, and constitutional law for those interested.  

At the core of a good delegate operation is personal persuasion and establishing a lasting connection with the delegates. Everyone likes to feel important and delegates are no exception. Prior to the 1976 convention, uncommitted delegates were invited to the White House to attend state dinners and personal meetings with the President. More than a few were seen on Air Force One. This was all perfectly legal and, incidentally, quite effective. While none of the candidates are capable of offering such an array of inducements, a candidate could host personal meetings with his team for instance. All candidates have important surrogates who will be assigned to call delegates on a regular basis. Picture a Monday morning at the office of an uncommitted delegate, “Mr. Smith, Governor Christie is calling on Line 1. Remember that Senator Graham called just a few minutes ago.”

Most importantly, campaigns will look to friends, business associates or even family members to weigh in directly with delegates. The good campaigns will build a web of personal advocates who will stay in regular touch with each delegate target. For the four or more days of the Republican convention, delegates will be at the center of the universe and courted right up to the final vote.

Not surprisingly, arcane delegate rules are of little interest to voters angry about the status quo. Many could react poorly to a protracted contest on national television.  But there are no perfect alternatives for the GOP and things could be far worse for them if they disregarded long established rules and caved to intimidation."

The pursuit of uncommitted delegates is not different from a president seeking enactment of a key legislative priority with Congress, something well known to Ted Cruz and John Kasich, or a businessman asking zoning approval for a new project before City Council, something that Donald Trump surely understands. It takes focus, time, and one on one attention to round up the winning votes. In a political era dominated by big money and data accumulation, personal interactions and building relationships is a healthy development.

A longtime Republican political activist, Frank Donatelli is executive vice president and director of federal public affairs for McGuireWoods Consulting LLC, and serves as counsel with McGuireWoods LLP.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain tapped Frank to serve as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, where he coordinated the RNC’s fundraising and organizing activities directly with the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. Frank is the former chairman of GOPAC, an organization dedicated to educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders. He previously served as Political Director for President Ronald Reagan.