Is Trump coming too late to the delegate game?

He's only now getting up to speed on the arcane rules. But he's way behind. The uproar could feed concerns about a loss of faith in the American political system.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A man holds a 'Make America Great Again' hat as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at an airplane hangar in Rochester, N.Y., Sunday.

Donald Trump has spent much of the 2016 campaign complaining he’s being treated “unfairly.” The Republican National Committee hasn’t handled him with respect, he says. The other GOP candidates, and their establishment backers, are ganging up on him. The news media, starting with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, ask unfair questions and write unfair stories.

Now Mr. Trump’s steady patter of complaint has turned to rage, after his top competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, swept all 34 delegates at stake last weekend at Colorado’s state Republican convention – a forum in which the voters themselves had no direct input.

It was a “crooked deal,” Trump complained Monday morning on Fox

Trump has also watched with frustration as, one by one, other state party conventions have ushered in anti-Trump delegates who aren’t required to support him after the first (or in some cases, second) ballot at the Republican National Convention – despite the fact that Trump won those delegates, and in many cases, won the primary.

So does Trump, the clear front-runner, have a point? Is the game rigged, as he says, by party insiders?

Not literally. Party insiders are terrified of Trump, an unguided missile of a candidate who has shown no real loyalty to the Republican Party and alienated vast swaths of the general electorate, making success in November difficult to achieve if not impossible. Anti-Trump insiders who understand the Byzantine system for delegate selection have been picking Trump’s pocket at every opportunity – and Trump, unintentionally, has allowed it to happen.

Ultimately, then, Trump has no one to blame but himself, analysts say. He should have known the rules, which vary from state to state, and made sure he and his team were in the mix fighting for delegates, alongside Senator Cruz and his team.

But in the uproar over delegate selection there lies a deeper danger, one that threatens core democratic ideals: a loss of faith in the system, and yes, a sense of fairness. The public – especially Trump’s millions of supporters – may well not understand how Trump has hurt himself. And if the real estate mogul ends up losing the nomination, he could use his considerable media megaphone to scream he was robbed and leave his supporters feeling alienated and disenfranchised.

It's their party

Political parties are private organizations, and not governed by the Constitution (which doesn’t even mention parties) or the Federal Election Commission. It’s up to the candidates, and their lawyers, to defend their own interests.

“If you want to crack the Da Vinci Code of this archaic language [on delegate rules] that few people understand, you’re going to have to start doing the nuts and bolts of politics,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Trump came very late to this realization.”

If Trump arrives at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July with the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination, then there’s little that Cruz and party insiders can do to stop him. But if Trump arrives short of 1,237, he is widely seen as doomed to fail. Most delegates will be free to vote as they please on subsequent ballots.

One caveat: The convention rules aren’t yet set in stone. The Republican National Committee meets late next week in Hollywood, Fla.; the rules will be on the agenda. Then there’s the convention rules committee, which meets before the convention to finalize the rules and submit them for a floor vote. One question is which delegates will serve on that committee – and where their loyalties lie. Another question is whether the rules will be changed to allow a candidate who does not have the majority support of eight state delegations to be presented for nomination.

A change to that rule could open up room for the third candidate in the GOP race, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, to be in contention – or even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (whose candidacy is suspended, but who currently has more delegates than Governor Kasich) or House Speaker Paul Ryan. If that happened, watch for fireworks.

Already for Trump, who is on track to “win” the primary season with the most votes and the most delegates (if not a majority), any convention outcome that doesn’t make him the nominee is sure to produce cries of highway robbery.

An opportunity missed?

But already, Trump should be scolding himself, says Mr. O’Connell.

“In my opinion, he has been throwing away the nomination, because he’s been winging it,” he says. “I promise you, when he goes into a land deal, he’s got lawyers and accountants with him, and they dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’ Well, you’ve got to be able to do the same thing here” – with the delegate process – “even if the language and system are archaic.”

Trump has brought in veteran GOP strategist Paul Manafort, who worked for President Ford in the last contested Republican convention, in 1976. But it may be too late. The game is being played now, and Trump has been caught unprepared. 

In addition to Colorado, Trump has suffered delegate setbacks in South Carolina, North Carolina, Iowa, Indiana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Georgia, according to Politico

In his newness to the political game, it may be that Trump, the savvy businessman, was simply naive. Perhaps he thought he could grab the nomination through sheer force of personality, with a message that has drawn enthusiastic hordes to his rallies and endless hours of free TV.

But on what should have been the easy part – meticulous attention to the rules of the game – he has fallen down. Another Trump consigliere, Roger Stone, has taken to issuing threats about delegates who consider “stealing” the nomination from Trump. Such strong-arm tactics could backfire on Trump, if he hopes to maintain the high road in a process he claims is unfair. 

In any case, if Trump loses the nomination, he’s not likely to go down quietly, and many of supporters could follow. The Republican Party could face a crisis like it hasn’t seen in decades.

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