Even before Donald Trump’s big win in New York Tuesday night, the conversations among party officials and high-level operatives about a contested Republican convention were already shifting dramatically.
The magic number of delegates for Trump to clinch the nomination on the first ballot, likely to be his best and perhaps only chance to do so, remains 1,237. But there are now whispers that the real number of delegates Trump must win by June 7, when the final contests take place, may be lower.
“The closer he gets to 1,237, even if he doesn’t get all the way there by the final primaries, the more likely he cobbles it together,” said one RNC member attending the quarterly party meetings in Florida, where sideline conversations are focused on this subject. “There are plenty of delegates that are unbound on first ballot, you’ve just got to go find them.”
When the convention opens in Cleveland in mid-July, roughly 200 delegates will arrive as free agents, unbound by the results of primaries or caucuses in their states. Trump’s campaign is confident they can win as many of them as they must in order to get to 1,237 on the first ballot.
“Trump has to get to 1,237, but there’s a lot of talk about, ‘What is the real number?’” said another RNC member. “Whatever half the uncommitted number is, that’s probably a reasonable number.”
“I think a lot of people think if he gets within 50-100 [of 1,237], he’ll be able to carry it,” said Steve House, the Colorado GOP chairman, who is himself an unbound delegate and is already being courted by the Trump and Cruz campaigns.
The whisper conversations about this indeterminate “real number” that Trump must hit by June 7 reveal a growing if reluctant consensus among party officials and establishment Republicans that if he gets close enough, they can’t take the nomination away.
“If he’s close after June 7, there’ll be a compelling reason for folks to say he’s won the most delegates by a lot and he’s won the most voters by a ton,” said Ron Kaufman, an RNC member from Massachusetts who is close to Mitt Romney and supported Jeb Bush earlier this year.
Kaufman believes this is the likeliest resolution to the GOP’s dramatic primary — and a perfectly acceptable one at that. “In the end, we want to make sure all those millions of people who voted in a Republican primary understand their votes were worthwhile. You just can’t kick all those voters — more than have ever voted in our primary before — to the curb. We want to make sure they’re with us in November.”
Trump still has an opportunity to hit the 1,237 mark before the convention, as he carries new momentum into five other Northeastern states that vote next week and where polls already show him ahead.
And he is gearing up to make a major push in California, where 172 delegates are up for grabs on June 7. Of the $20 million budget approved days ago to carry Trump’s campaign through the rest of the primary calendar, roughly $7 million to $9 million have been earmarked for television ads in the state, according to a source close to the campaign.
But an operative close to Trump’s team indicated that the campaign is ready to pull out all the stops to woo unbound delegates if the nomination comes down to it.
“This is like a Super Bowl ticket. The price only goes up,” the operative said. “If I were a delegate, I’d say I’m unpledged and hang my hat out there … wine me and dine me. I think there are going to be some free trips to Cleveland … that is time-tested and true in terms of delegates who are unpledged and campaigns doing what they need to do to get to their magic number.”
Our Principles PAC, the primary vehicle for establishment donors working to stop Trump, is also shifting into delegate-targeting mode.
“If he doesn’t have 1237 bound, declared delegates on June 7, then he’s not the presumptive nominee. So we’ll go into the convention and it’ll be an open convention,” said Katie Packer, the group’s director. “Anyone who suggests they know what will happen on that first ballot is lying. I give these delegates a bit more credit than being able to be bribed with a trip to Mar-a-Lago. We intend to make sure that every delegate understands how weak Trump is and how he has no chance of beating Hillary.”
However high his negatives with general election voters, Trump has proved to be an adroit politician and has taken dramatic steps to professionalize his campaign following weeks of setbacks in Wisconsin, where he lost the primary two weeks ago by double digits, and in a number of states where his organizational deficiencies allowed Ted Cruz’s campaign to sweep up delegates.
Trump has empowered campaign manager Paul Manafort to guide his operation and hired Rick Wiley, a former RNC staffer with strong ties to the party establishment — two fixers tasked with helping Trump repair existing shortcomings and secure the GOP nomination.
His overwhelming victory in New York, where he is in line to win more than 85 of the state’s 95 delegates, may be the result of Trump’s popularity in his home state, the one place where he had an existing political organization that predated his presidential campaign. But there’s no question that in this case, the nomination calendar worked to Trump’s advantage, delivering him an opportunity for a reset following his roughest stretch since voting began.
“It’s like getting your quarterback hurt during your bye week,” one operative close to Trump’s campaign said. “He was in good enough shape in New York that [Manafort] could buckle down and spend some time revamping the larger campaign. And he has.”
Beyond the organizational changes he’s put in place, Manafort is also altering Trump’s own approach. Since Manafort took over as top strategist, Trump hasn’t appeared on Sunday political shows — a forum he dominated for months — and his victory speech on Tuesday night from the lobby of Trump Tower was notable for its relative message discipline, lack of insults and overall more polished tone.
After blasting the RNC’s nomination process as “rigged” last week, Trump made the same point slightly more subtly on Tuesday — merely by basking in his victory.
“It’s really nice to win the delegates with the votes,” he said.