Uh oh: Has Cruz been Trumped in trying to win over Pennsylvania's delegates?

Big news from American Commitment President Phil Kerpen, who’s been hard at work trying to figure out which way Pennsylvania’s delegate candidates are leaning. Why is that important? It’s not just that Pennsylvania will send 71, a large haul, to the convention. It’s the fact that the state has a “loophole primary” where most of those 71 are unbound on the first ballot. Seventeen delegates will be awarded to the winner of the primary next week but the remaining 54 will be determined by elections held the same day — and to make things extra confusing, the ballot won’t show which presidential candidate each would-be delegate is supporting for nominee. If you’re looking to vote for delegates who back Trump, you’d better have done your homework before you go into the booth.

The reason Pennsylvania is potentially critical is because Trump’s expected to finish the primaries with somewhere between 1,100 and 1,237 delegates. If he finishes with, say, 1,200, all that stands between him and the nomination is convincing 37 of the 54 unbound members of Pennsylvania’s delegation to tilt his way. But that’s a huge advantage for Cruz: He’s the one, after all, who’s been running circles around Trump organizationally when it comes to getting his delegates elected in state votes. If Team Cruz is as successful in Pennsylvania as it’s been in places like Colorado in wrangling delegates, it could kill Trump’s last chance of winning on the first ballot — in a state where, notes Nate Cohn, Trump surely would have won a huge share of delegates had there been a traditional primary this year.

Mr. Trump would be favored to win a majority of Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates under any other primary system. He leads by at least nine percentage points in every survey in the state, and is ahead of Ted Cruz by an average of 44 percent to 28 percent, according to The Huffington Post Pollster. He’s up by a similar margin of 46 percent to 30 percent in The Upshot’s demographic-based model. Our model gives him an edge in 15 of the state’s 18 congressional districts.

In a standard proportional allocation, Mr. Trump would probably be on track to win at least 40 of the state’s delegates. In a winner-take-most system, like Indiana’s or California’s, Mr. Trump would be favored to win at least 60 delegates.

So Pennsylvania, which could have been a dagger to Cruz’s chances, is actually a golden opportunity for him insofar as it rewards good organization at the delegate level, not mass appeal in the popular vote. And to hear Team Cruz tell it, they’re taking advantage of that — remember, a few days ago a Cruz staffer told NBC that they expect to win more than half of the state’s delegates even if they finish third in the primary. But that’s where Kerpen comes in. Contrary to what you might believe, he claims, Team Cruz is not especially well organized in Pennsylvania. That’s hard to fathom given the fact that the state’s “loophole” rules were well known and should have been an obvious target for the Cruzers for months now, but the facts are what they are. Normally, in a state with 18 congressional districts, a campaign should have recruited no fewer than 54 candidates for the delegate elections. Team Cruz has recruited … 28 candidates, barely more than half of the target. They don’t even have a candidate in every district (14 out of 18) when ideally they’d have three for each. What’s more, notes Kerpen, seven of their candidates are based in the same district even though there are only three delegate slots available. At least four of their 28 would-be delegates, in other words, are sure losers next week.

But that’s not all. Have a peek at the spreadsheet Kerpen’s put together identifying all of the candidates for delegate and noting, as best as he can tell, what they intend to do at the convention. There are more candidates who support Trump (34) than there are who support Cruz. On top of that, 58 candidates say they’ll support whoever wins the popular vote in their district — which is likely to be Trump in most cases — and another five say they’ll support the statewide winner, which is also almost certain to be Trump. (There are 27 who are uncommitted.) That is to say, out of 125 candidates who’ve said how they plan to vote, nearly 80 percent of them are potential Trumpers, and unlike in previous state elections, Trump’s getting some help from local pols in Pennsylvania in organizing. It may be that Team Cruz is still so well organized compared to Team Trump that all 28 of its candidates will be elected next week, cutting into Trump’s edge among the Pennsylvania delegation at the convention. It may also be that a bunch of those 27 uncommitted delegates will be wooed to support Cruz, or that Cruz will win a few rural districts in next week’s primary and the delegates from those districts will support him in Cleveland. But a lot has to go right for him to fulfill his campaign’s boast to NBC that they’ll have more than half of Pennsylvania’s delegates on their side at the convention, and even if it does, he may be looking at not much more than 35. Trump may still pull down something like 30-35 delegates from the state — which could make the difference to him clinching on the first ballot.

How did Team Cruz fall down on the job here? Kerpen points to the fact that delegates had to announce their candidacy months ago, before February 16th, in order to land on next week’s ballot and Cruz’s operation may simply not have been planning for a delegate battle at the time. Remember, Cruz’s strategy initially was to beat Trump across the evangelical south and then settle into a long war with Marco Rubio, who looked to be the emerging establishment champion. Rubio’s team was very well organized in Pennsylvania: The Times notes that they actually did recruit three delegate candidates for each of the state’s 18 districts, meaning that they were better prepared in PA before Rubio left the race last month than Cruz is now. Maybe Team Cruz didn’t work hard there because they thought Rubio already had the delegate races locked up? (But why would they think that? Cruz would be competitive with Rubio in rural areas, at least.) Whatever the reason, if you’re a Cruz fan, you’d better hope that the campaign has some sort of trick up its sleeve or that some of those 27 “uncommitted” delegate candidates are secretly pro-Cruz. If not, Pennsylvania could be the rabbit Trump pulls out of his hat on the first ballot at the convention.

By the way, Sean Hannity’s going to be posting the names and nominee preferences for the various delegate candidates in Pennsylvania, which I’m sure he would have done if Trump had flamed out long ago and we were looking at a Cruz/Rubio battle now. No need to wait, though. That information is available in Kerpen’s spreadsheet too.

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