After his resounding victory in New York Tuesday night, Republican front-runner Donald Trump looks ahead to a series of primaries in the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, where he will deploy a new strategy that includes aggressively courting delegates, a tactic he had previously and vocally panned as unnecessary and part of a "rigged" system.
The hard push for support from individual delegates is a shift for Trump who has been outmaneuvered by rival Sen. Ted Cruz, but one that has proven necessary as if he is to ensure he has the support of delegates at the Republican nominating convention in July. The effort is critical in the Keystone State, which uses a complicated and confusing process of picking 54 "unbound" delegates spread out among the state's Congressional districts who can support whomever they choose in the first round of balloting at the convention.
Trump's campaign has decided to mount a legitimate effort, using money and resources.
John Schnaedter, chair of the Allegheny Republican Party in southwest Pennsylvania, said that delegate contact from the Trump team began early.
“None of the campaigns have reached out to us other than Trump’s,” he said.
Trump's Efforts in Pennsylvania
Schnaedter said that Trump's campaign is “putting together an Election Day strategy" for the state. He has at least two staffers employed there working on two fronts: First, to ensure people running for delegate slots support him, and second, educating voters to ensure that voters in Tuesday's primary elect those delegates.
The new strategy can be traced to a changing of the guard at Trump headquarters, with the real estate mogul's recent hiring of campaign veteran Paul Manafort to address the campaign's organizational shortcomings. Trump has also devoted $20 million to the last few weeks of the primary, including delegate recruitment.
"I don't wanna get into the intricacies of our Pennsylvania strategy but I think we make sure that people know who the Trump delegates are." Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski said.
The campaign successfully identified James Keffalas, a candidate for delegate in the third Congressional district. The Trump campaign asked him to sign a pledge, which he gladly signed, that he would support Trump in Cleveland should he be elected delegate. It's a common tactic used by campaigns to guarantee support but one that Trump hasn't deployed in other states.
Chris Volger, a candidate for delegate in the sixth Congressional District, said the Trump campaign was the first campaign to reach out to him. He said the phone call from the campaign early last week was “a soft sell” to get a sense of who he was planning on supporting.
The Cruz and Kasich campaigns are also courting delegates, but they are just now ramping up the process. The Cruz campaign has invited candidates for delegate to meet with him privately in Philadelphia Tuesday night. And Kasich will meet with delegate candidates in Chester County outside Philadelphia Thursday.
Volger, who will not support a candidate ahead of Tuesday’s election, said he has since been contacted by the campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich after he was quoted in a news article about how the other campaigns haven’t reached out to him.
Calvin Tucker, a candidate for delegate in the second Congressional district, which includes Philadelphia, said he’s going to weigh his vote at the convention heavily on who he thinks will win in November. He doesn’t plan to announce his support of a candidate before Tuesday’s primary.
“The Trump campaign has been fairly aggressive in discussions with me,” he said.
The second challenge for the campaigns is teaching voters which delegates to support. The Trump campaign is addressing that issue, too.
On Reddit, a Trump supporter posted an “URGENT!” notice from Ted Christian, the Trump campaign’s deputy state director, asking for volunteers on Election Day.
“The Pennsylvania campaign NEEDS Election Workers more than most races because on the PA ballot the delegates DO NOT SAY WHO THEY ARE SUPPORTING FOR PRESIDENT,” the reddit post reads. “That is why it is CRITICAL to have centipedes at ALL POLLS in PA handing out flyers to the voters about which delegates are for DONALD J TRUMP for President! If you are in PA or near PA can volunteer for just one day please please please reach out. Its time.”
How Pennsylvania Works
Trump's focus on Pennsylvania’s delegate selection process is especially critical – and complicated. While 17 delegates are awarded to the candidate who wins the state overall, 54 delegates are “unbound,” meaning that the delegates can support whomever they want, even on the first round of balloting at the Republican nominating convention in July.
Voters elect the delegates to attend the convention in next week’s primary, but the confusing factor is that voters in each Congressional district must chose three candidates that have no identifying factors related to the presidential election. For example, Mary Beth Dougherty is one of a dozen candidates running for three delegate slots in the 17th Congressional district and only her name will appear on the ballot.
In an year where Republican primaries have seen an increase in voter turnout and in Pennsylvania where more than 100,000 Democrats or independents have registered as Republicans to vote in the primary, many casual voters could be very confused when they see Dougherty's name - and ten other candidates - on the ballot for delegate and no reference to a presidential candidate. (Voters do vote directly for a presidential candidate in the statewide allocation section of the ballot.)
Enthusiastic Trump volunteers are also active in the state. Gabriel Keller, a candidate for delegate in the 12th Congressional district set up a website identifying Trump delegates in Pennsylvania’s complicated delegate selection process.