"Trojan horse delegates": Is the first ballot at the convention Trump's only chance of winning?

The term “Trojan horse delegates” comes from former Trump advisor turned Trump advocate Roger Stone. I don’t know if he coined it or if he’s borrowing it but it’s a clever way to delegitimize a process that’s always been cronyistic and dominated by establishmentarians, not just in this, the Year of Trump. Normally it doesn’t matter who the individual delegates are: The eventual nominee clinches a majority during the primaries, they’re all bound to vote for him on the first ballot, so he wins the nomination on the floor of the convention during the initial vote and that’s that. What happens, though, when no one makes it to the convention with a majority? The first ballot comes and goes, no one wins, and suddenly hundreds upon hundreds of delegates are unbound, free to vote for whomever they wish. As soon as that happens, the results of the primaries become essentially meaningless. If, for example, South Carolina’s 50 delegates personally prefer Cruz to Trump, then South Carolina will “flip” to Cruz on the second ballot even though Cruz finished in third place there last month, more than 10 points behind Trump. That’s what Stone means by “Trojan horse delegates,” people who are bound to vote for one candidate on the first ballot but who are selected for the convention with the knowledge that they plan to vote for another candidate on the second ballot if no one gets a majority on the first. In that case, the identities of the individual delegates is of the utmost importance. And don’t think establishmentarians don’t know it.

Anti-Trumpers may be tempted to dismiss Stone’s piece as hype designed to rally Trump fans by warning them about a plot to deny Trump the nomination, but I don’t think it’s hype. Neither does radio host John Ziegler, who claims to have heard from multiple sources that plans to install as many anti-Trumpers as possible as delegates in various states are in the works. Various journalists have already written about it, in fact. Here’s Sasha Issenberg in a piece published last week titled, “How to Steal a Nomination From Donald Trump”:

“Forty-four states give the delegation-selection authority to a state convention or state executive committee, with no requirement that the candidate have a say in choosing delegates,” says Benjamin Ginsberg, a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee who managed Mitt Romney’s pre-convention delegate strategy. “Centralized power has dissipated in many states so that pockets of grassroots activists hold great sway.”…

At Cruz’s Houston headquarters, a six-person team overseen by political operatives, lawyers, and data analysts is effectively re-enacting the primary calendar, often with the aim of placing double agents in Trump slates.

Cruz’s great strength is organization, and organization is key in getting handpicked delegates elected at state-level conventions — not to mention identifying people who secretly support you but are willing to run as a delegate on another candidate’s behalf. But what about those states where it’s the local party bureaucracy, not grassroots activists, who hold the most sway over delegate selection? Without Trump in the race this year, that would have posed a problem for Cruz since many of those bureaucracies would have been working against him as the “insurgent” candidate. As it is, with people like Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham in his corner in an all-out “Stop Trump” effort, establishment muscle may end up being put to use on Cruz’s behalf in choosing delegates:

In those states with a Republican governor, the state party is typically a fiefdom of the executive controlled through a chosen chair. Although campaign-finance reforms have prompted “the weakening of state parties over the last decade,” as Ginsberg puts it, 31 states today have Republican executives, more than at nearly any point in modern history. Across most of the country, the de facto party boss can leverage the clout of state government—budgetary authority, regulatory power, public appointments—to enforce party discipline.

During the nominating season, this often means a governor can freely stack an at-large slate with cronies, expecting a rubber-stamp from a subservient party committee. In Iowa, where Governor Terry Branstad in 2014 helped to reclaim the state party after an unexpected takeover from supporters of Ron Paul, Republican officials actively discourage their rank-and-file from even understanding how the state’s 18 at-large delegates will be selected.

Cruz is further helped, notes Issenberg, by the fact that some states limit the pool from which delegates can be chosen in the first place. In South Carolina, you’re not eligible unless you were a delegate to the state convention in May 2015 — held a month before Trump declared his candidacy. Which way do you suppose delegates to that convention lean politically, Trumpist or conservative? Which way should those delegates lean if they’re looking to curry favor with local party bosses like Nikki Haley, who recently declared that she’s backing Cruz now that Rubio’s out?

And it’s not just the floor fight for the nomination where delegates matter. Stone notes correctly in his piece that delegates also set the rules for the convention — and those who personally support Cruz are under no obligation to set rules favorable to Trump even if he won the primary in their state:

These hard-boiled pols know the nomination will be decided not on the first ballot, but in a series of procedural votes by the entire convention to adopt the rules of the convention as recommended by the Rules Committee and the seating of the delegates as recommended by the Credentials Committee. Those key committees are made up by two members from each state. The bosses have been quietly planting establishment regulars in these spots…

Though these “Trump” delegates will be bound by national and state rules to support Trump through the first ballot at the convention, they are free to vote against Trump’s interests on the adoption of Rules and the seating of delegates. It’s entirely plausible that a state could seat delegates pledged to support Donald Trump who have open affiliations with other candidates. In California, Cruz and Paulistas are signing up online via CA’s GOP website as Trump delegates.

Let’s say Trump is the only candidate to win a majority of delegates in eight different states, as Rule 40 currently requires the nominee to do. If the rule remains as is, Trump fans would have an argument that he should be the nominee by default even if he’s short of a clear majority. A delegate pool packed with Cruz supporters could amend the rule to lower the threshold to, say, five states, though, making Cruz eligible for the nomination too. Or it could amend it to clarify that Rule 40 applies only on the first ballot and will be lifted for the second if no one secures 1,237 delegates on the first. There’s a lot of shenanigans to come and an exceptionally smart, well organized campaign like Cruz’s is primed to take advantage of them.

The reason Stone’s writing about this now is not only to warn Trumpers that they need to pay attention to delegate elections in their state parties but also to prime the pump for Trump’s electoral pitch in April, May, and June. “They’re already preparing to steal the nomination!” Team Trump will howl, “unless YOU turn out to vote in your primary and hand him the delegates he needs to clinch a majority before the convention.” If Trump can convince fencesitters that a sinister establishment plot to “steal” what’s rightly his is already in motion, with Ted Cruz at the heart of it, it might do enough damage to Cruz to get Trump to 1,237. The takeaway, though, is that if he doesn’t make it to Cleveland with a total very close to that amount, he’s probably doomed to lose on the second or third ballot. If he’s at, say, 1,200 delegates, there’ll be enough unbound ones floating around before the first ballot that he can probably cajole another 37 to join his cause. But if he can’t, if he finishes at 1,220, say, after the first ballot, he’s apt to hemorrhage hundreds of votes before the second ballot as many of his pledged delegates are freed to support whoever they like and they inevitably break for Cruz. It’s weird to think that the last few weeks or even months of the race are going to be held with that stark reality as backdrop — “If the voters don’t hand the nomination to Trump now, the party will hand it to Cruz in Cleveland” — but that’s where we’re headed.

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