A core of Republican consultants who have been fighting Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination are now bracing for a contested convention after Trump victories in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois on Tuesday.
Many in the industry remain shellshocked by the continued success of the New York businessman, who has remained strong with GOP primary voters even as clashes between Trump supporters and protestors marked several of his campaign rallies over the past week. A late anti-Trump ad blitz also failed to blunt enough of his momentum ahead of Tuesday’s primaries.
Anti-Trump Republicans had circled March 15 on their calendars in the hope that either Marco Rubio or John Kasich could top Trump in one of the winner-take-all delegate contests in Florida or Ohio. Trump notched a commanding win in Florida on Tuesday, forcing Rubio from the race, but Kasich did manage victory in his home state, ensuring the race will move forward. Missouri’s contest remains in a near deadlock between Trump and Ted Cruz and was yet to be called as of early Wednesday morning.
“We are headed to a contested convention,” Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted once Ohio was called for Kasich.
GOP strategist Katie Packer, who’s heading Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump group, pointed to the governor’s victory as a blow to Trump’s claim on the nomination. “And there goes @realDonaldTrump path to 1,237. Congrats to team @JohnKasich on an important win,” she tweeted Tuesday.
Ahead of Tuesday’s voting, Packer’s group put some $500k behind an ad that detailed derogatory remarks Trump has made about women, and the group signaled it intends to keep up the ad blitz as the race for the nomination moves forward.
Meanwhile, others are lining up for the potential that the nomination is decided in Cleveland. Kasich’s campaign announced a handful of additional advisers late Tuesday, including Charlie Black and Stu Spencer. The campaign made sure to note they both played a role in the 1976 GOP nominating contest — the last time there was a contested convention on the Republican side.
In an interview on MSNBC, Ben Ginsberg, former counsel to Mitt Romney’s campaign, previewed the potential fight for convention delegates. By Ginsberg’s count, there are now a total of 320 unbound delegates (that number includes Rubio’s 159 delegates who now move into the unbound pool of delegates on a first ballot at the Cleveland convention).
“In broad strokes the candidates themselves get to pick about 20 percent of the delegates, the rest of the delegates are chosen by a unique state process,” explained Ginsberg. “All of a sudden the stage is going to shift to these unique county and state functions where people go through the raw politics in kind of a practice round for what a national convention will be.”
The bottom line: there remains a great deal of unpredictability. Ginsberg noted there are really no legal rules that govern what candidates can do to get unbound delegates in their corner, though he joked that a campaign wouldn’t want to find itself in the position of “defending somebody who just took a suitcase of cash for a vote at a convention.”
The pressing question for Trump now is whether his largely consultant-free campaign can survive a potential contested convention and effectively build an organization for a general election contest.
“He’s not running a sophisticated data-driven campaign and yet he’s winning,” Democrat David Plouffe, who managed President Obama’s 2008 campaign said on Fox News Tuesday.
That success has reinforced Trump’s view that traditional campaign infrastructure is meaningless, but there are real questions as to how well that holds up if Trump has to put together an operation to whip delegates at the Cleveland convention.
If he does succeed in winning the nomination, “Trump’s either going to have to write a big check finally himself or he’s going to have to raise money from the very people’s he’s attacking,” noted Plouffe.
In other words, he’s going to have to run a general election campaign. “You’re going to have to run ads; you’re going to have to have sophisticated data analytics; you’re going to have to build a grassroots organization. Unless Trump’s going to rewrite every rule, he’s going to need some Republican establishment help to do it.”