Trump vs Priebus, or biting the hand that might feed you

“I don’t know,” Donald Trump told the Washington Post about whether he’d try to push Reince Priebus out at the convention, “I haven’t made that determination.” Allahpundit wrote a good run-down on the story last night, but there’s another aspect of this story that should get discussion. It goes right to the heart of the role of any party chair, this one in particular, and the way in which Priebus just might be the key in any scenario that produces a Trump general-election victory.

Let’s look at the remark in context again:

“It’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention, otherwise people are going to fall asleep,” Trump said in a 45-minute interview here last week in his Trump Tower office. “We don’t have the people who know how to put showbiz into a convention.”

Trump’s comments capped a week of feuding between him and the RNC as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has outmaneuvered him in the chase for the convention delegates who will decide the nomination. Trump argued that the delegate selection process is “rigged,” prompting the RNC to proclaim in a memo that the rules of the system have been clear.

Trump left open the possibility that he would seek to install his own allies at the RNC should he accrue the 1,237 delegates required to win the nomination by the time primary voting ends in June. Asked in the interview whether he would retain RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in that scenario, Trump replied: “I don’t know. I haven’t made the determination.”

First off, Trump should heed the old saying: Be careful what you wish for — you might get it. Conventions aren’t boring because they lack “showbiz”; they’re boring because showbiz is usually all they have. For the last few decades, they’ve been four-day theatrical extravaganzas with endings predetermined and broadcast for months. Everyone already knows how it will end, so all of the stagecraft and supposed drama of floor votes falls as flat as a murder mystery where the butler really did do it. Adding a few song-and-dance acts won’t pretty that up, as anyone who has endured an awards broadcast can attest. It just makes the boredom last longer.

And at least awards shows have real tension and mystery. Want an exciting  convention? Hold a floor vote that matters. Want it more exciting? Have multiple floor votes and put some real tension in the convention. That would eliminate the phoniness and lack of real risk that makes most of the conventions boring to those watching on television. However, since that scenario would spell disaster for Trump’s hopes of winning the nomination, it would seem odd that he’d wish for interesting times in Cleveland.

It’s even more odd that Trump would want to push out Priebus at the convention. First, that’s not when party chairs are changed — it’s after the election, as AP noted. Priebus has little to do with whether conventions are boring on television either, for reasons stated above, but he does have a lot to do with whether the RNC is ready to help Republican nominees at every level win in November. And in that area, Trump needs Priebus perhaps more than any other potential Republican nominee in the field.

After the 2012 election, Priebus determined in the “Growth Opportunity Project” — what the rest of us called “the autopsy” — that the Romney campaign’s lack of ground-up organization and voter contact doomed the campaign. As I wrote in my book Going Red, Priebus followed up that report by convincing donors to part with millions of dollars (in “hard” money, not “soft”) to build a nominee-independent organization that would be ready for a general election. The idea was that even a nominee who had not been particularly adept at organizing would hit the ground running after the convention:

“The way national parties have worked over the years is that we accumulate cash, we wait for a nominee, and then we spend that money,” Priebus says. “But I can’t show up in Cleveland and Cincinnati for the first time in four years in September of 2016 and expect to have an impact on the community. So the basic premise of this is that if you are going to compete in Hispanic, black, or Asian communities, and compete better with veterans and people of faith, you have to work on it on a year-round basis.”

If Republicans can do this, the GOP can stop strategizing for smaller turnouts and start driving the larger turnouts in the same way that the Barack Obama campaign did in 2008 and 2012. The Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI), an outgrowth of the Growth and Opportunity Project, shifts the organizational effort from the candidate to the party—and shifts the party effort from national to granular. This goes beyond demographics, Priebus argues, and all the way down to peer-to-peer politics.

“At the end of 2014, I think we had over 4,200 paid employees. When I walked in the door here, we had less than 80,” Priebus says. The RLI “hire[s] people from the communities that we want to influence, from the community to stay in the community, to then meet metrics that we set,” he explains. “That means one-on-one meetings for that community, and that means not just necessarily sitting around talking about fracking and clean coal; it means having a pizza party, bringing a band in, once in a while giving hot dogs out and talking to people, and then going to community events.”

Reprinted (or Adapted) from GOING RED: THE TWO MILLION VOTERS WHO WILL ELECT THE NEXT PRESIDENT—AND HOW CONSERVATIVES CAN WIN THEM Copyright © 2016 by Ed Morrissey, published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Of all the potential nominees in the field at the moment, Trump needs this most. He’s getting outfought by Ted Cruz on the ground game even though the rules of delegate allocation favor Trump. If the Trump campaign had put anywhere near the resources, attention, and effort into that aspect of campaigning that Team Cruz clearly has, we probably wouldn’t be talking about a contested convention.

That’s why Priebus built this organization — to hedge against the possibility that a nominee would have to spend all its organizational efforts on the primary, or that it didn’t have the skills or inclination to pursue that aspect of the general-election campaign. It was a fail-safe to prevent what happened in 2012, and to expand the party footprint beyond the traditional geographic and demographic base. And Priebus is the one man who has the connections to the funding and strategic leadership necessary to maintain it. Yet Trump’s casually suggesting that he can push out the one man who might have the keys to a Trump victory — and not just Trump’s victory, but lots of down-ballot Republicans as well — because Priebus didn’t pizazz up the 2012 convention to his taste. Perhaps Trump should cure his “I don’t know” by familiarizing himself with the roles of party chairs in general, and an honest assessment of his campaign’s apparent weaknesses and the way in which Priebus might rescue him from them, before he makes his “determination.”

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