Trump leads in polls, money – and understanding the delegate race

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Former President Donald Trump has attracted a lot of attention for his lead in the polls and the money race, but he’s also already ahead in an essential area that’s gotten less notice: the delegate process.

Trump’s team has the lead in both its understanding of the delegate process and the steps the team has taken to tilt the scales in their favor, according to over a dozen Republican state party officials, veteran strategists and campaign operatives interviewed by CNN. Those interviews, alongside ones done with the allies of Flordia Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Trump campaign officials focused on delegate math, respectively, paint a clear portrait of the state of play of a crucial part of the 2024 Republican primary.

Understanding the delegate count on a state-by-state level is a wonky but necessary part of winning the presidential nomination, especially in primaries that drag on for months. Delegates – awarded to candidates after the primary or caucus takes place in each state – officially nominate a candidate at the party convention, and the candidate with the most delegates will be the party nominee.

Simply put: The campaign and candidate that best understand this process may gain an advantage over their opponents heading into 2024. It’s all about the delegate math. It’s a necessary fact that all campaigns need to keep in mind. Trump may be spurning other traditional parts of the Republican primary – like participating in debates, including the first one on Wednesday – but he and DeSantis both know that there is no path to victory without mastering the delegate process.

DeSantis allies, according to these interviews, would be a somewhat distant second place. They have looked into the delegate allocation process – largely because they believe that Trump and his allies have already “rigged” the process – begun figuring out their preferences and what can reasonably be achieved but are not as advanced as the Trump team. After that, it’s a vague mix of everyone else. Multiple members of the Republican National Committee interviewed for this story described receiving outreach about the delegate process from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign or Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign. But those committee members said that outreach – through phone calls, pressure campaigns, and emails – has been far more preliminary. Neither the Christie campaign nor the Scott campaign responded to questions from CNN about the outreach described by the RNC committee members.

Over the last few months, the Trump team and the DeSantis team, in particular, have been working to learn and shape the delegate allocation process to ensure they get the most delegates possible – or at least hinder their respective opponents from getting as many delegates as they can.

The fact that not every campaign has thus far taken a laser focus to the delegate process has shocked some veterans of past presidential campaigns.

Part of the reason that the delegate fight has shaped up to be mostly a Trump vs. DeSantis skirmish is because of the top leadership in those operations. Several of Trump’s senior campaign advisers are extremely experienced in delegate strategy and have longstanding relationships with each state party. Chris LaCivita helped lead the delegate process for the RNC and worked on the rules committee, Susie Wiles also served on the rules committee, including for the 2016 national convention, and Brian Jack was delegate director for the Trump campaign. Trump himself is invested this time around. He has reminded allies and advisers of what happened in Louisiana in 2016, when he won the primary but lost the delegate battle to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Advisers said he is engaged in the process and routinely asks about the math. Trump has made calls to state delegates and hosted party leaders at his Mar-a-lago home.

But DeSantis’ team and allies are also seasoned strategists on the delegate front. Republicans often point to Jeff Roe, who is leading the pro-DeSantis super PAC, as an expert on the delegate process. Ken Cuccinelli, likewise, made a mark for himself on the RNC rules front in 2016 when he led a push to embarrass Trump at the Republican National Convention through a technical floor maneuver that ultimately failed.

Not every campaign thus far has a delegate guru or at least someone near or at the helm of the campaign that understands the importance of delegate math. And the pool of experts to draw from is limited and intertwined. LaCivita served as a campaign strategist for Ken Cuccinelli – now the chief of the pro-DeSantis super PAC – when he lost his race to be Virginia’s governor. LaCivita has often quoted Cruz’s 2016 strategy, which was partly masterminded by Cuccinelli, who then served as the chief delegate counter for Cruz.

The delegate process rivalry between DeSantis and Trump speaks to the overall strategy of many of these campaigns.

“Each of these campaigns is banking on some scenario whereby Trump gets wounded – early – and somebody gets hot,” a veteran Republican strategist said. “There’s not going to be some long slog to the convention. Either Trump is going to roll this thing up or he’s going to die an unnatural death. If you’re in the race, that’s your theory.”

Looking for a ‘Plan B’

The phone calls with local Republican officials, the hours spent pouring over state party rules, the covert pressure campaigns – it’s all a part of the “Plan B” for getting DeSantis elected in the unlikely event neither he nor Trump have conceded by next summer’s GOP convention.

An official for Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis that has operated as the Republican’s shadow campaign, described the effort as a counteroffensive to offset years of maneuvering by Trump allies in state parties to change how they award delegates to benefit for the former president.

A top priority is convincing states not to award all their delegates to a candidate that crosses 50% of the vote total there. Another is keeping states from lowering the threshold to qualify to receive any delegates, a move that would undermine their efforts to cast this as a two-person race between DeSantis and Trump.

Mostly, they are looking for a return to how states have awarded their delegates historically – before Trump organizers intervened, the official said.

Trump campaign advisers, meanwhile, described the DeSantis strategy as not operating in “reality,” claiming it was designed more to line the pockets of donors.

“I don’t think that they’re interested necessarily in a plan B, or a plan Z. I think they’re more interested in maintaining relevance so that they can continue to raise money… they’re looking for relevance and a slick sales pitch does not constitute a strategy or frankly reality,” LaCivita told CNN.

“We’ll be happy to kick their ass in plan A B C D E F G H I J…” he added.

Trump’s state party advantage

In 2016, the idea that Donald Trump would eventually have deep roots with state Republican party officials seemed outlandish. But throughout his presidency, he won over or molded certain state party leadership to be more sympathetic to him. There are also structural advantages that Trump’s team now enjoys that DeSantis’s team and allies do not.

“At the time, obviously, many state parties were skeptical of the president. They were skeptical of his conservative bona fides, they were skeptical of an ability to win a general election and sure enough, after he became the nominee, and to the seven years since, he’s done nothing but develop incredibly strong relationships with the state parties,” a Trump adviser told CNN.

The adviser added that a key part of that relationship-building has been through Trump’s rallies – both while he was still in the White House and on the 2024 campaign trail – where they would invite party members and chairs to speak at rallies and sit in the front row.

The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down is running much of DeSantis’ political campaign from the outside. Many state parties only allow the campaigns themselves in the room for crucial talks, forcing Never Back Down to operate from a distance. DeSantis allies did not immediately respond to questions from CNN about this dynamic.

“Interacting with state Republican parties and their members to select delegates to the national convention is inherently a campaign-to-state party responsibility and is something that cannot and should not be subcontracted out to a non-party, non-candidate entity like a super PAC,” LaCivita told CNN. “There’s an important distinction there. And some state parties are instituting rules that would prohibit it.”

DeSantis allies have discovered Trump’s loyalties in state Republican parties are tough to break through. Their push has run into headwinds in states like California, Massachusetts, Idaho, Colorado and Nevada, where Trump-aligned party leaders will ultimately decide the formula for awarding their delegates.

Some of this has been visible to the public. In July, Trump’s team got a significant win in the allocation process when California’s Republican executive committee adopted a system that distributes delegates by the total statewide vote.

In Michigan, where 16 Republican operatives recently pleaded not guilty on charges stemming from a Trump-backed effort to subvert the election, the former president’s hold on the state GOP has proved particularly challenging. Party leaders there have refused to meet with anyone working on behalf of another candidate as they draw up rules for awarding their delegates, an official with Never Back Down told CNN.

Michigan Republican Party officials did not return multiple attempts at outreach by CNN. At the same time, the GOP there has changed its nominating so that delegates are awarded through a caucus on March 2, putting the state’s delegates up for grabs at a key moment in the presidential primary fight immediately following the first four states.

“The president opposes rigged elections unless he can rig them,” said Cuccinelli, the founder of Never Back Down and a former top official in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security.

The savvy of Trump’s delegate operation this time around is a stark change from 2016, when the then-first time presidential candidate often complained that the delegate system in the Republican primary was rigged against him. He pointed to the victories and resulting delegate hauls of Ted Cruz, ultimately Trump’s main rival in the 2016 primary. For instance, when Cruz won his home state of Texas in the primary the senator got 104 out of 155 delegates with that victory. Trump advisers have studied Cruz’s strategy, so this time around they can ensure the lion’s share of all delegates go to him.

Cuccinelli, who helped organize for Cruz, said while working for the Trump administration, he occasionally sparred with the former president over their dueling stakes in the 2016 race. During one such encounter, Cuccinelli said he told Trump: “With the next election cycle in 2020, you could get fixed all the things about the primary you said were rigged last time.”

“And he shrugged and he said, ‘Maybe I want them rigged this time,’” Cuccinelli told CNN.

The Trump campaign denies the former president ever made such a comment. “I wouldn’t even dignify that accusation with a comment. It is so low and so petty,” LaCivita told CNN.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the number of delegates that Sen. Ted Cruz won from Texas in 2016. He won 104 delegates. Additionally, the story clarified the action taken by the California Republican Party’s executive committee regarding its 2024 delegate rules. The committee adopted a system that distributes delegates by the total statewide vote with a majority winner-take-all trigger.

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