All bets are off for this year's GOP convention delegates
March 20, 2016 12:00 AM
(Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered at Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016 in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Trumps visit to Arizona is the second time in three months as he looks to gain the GOP nomination for President.
(Kim Raff/Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at a town hall event at Utah Valley University, Friday, March 18, 2016, in Orem, Utah.
(John Locher/Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a campaign rally Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Draper, Utah.
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The title may be the same, but the job description couldn’t be more different.
Every four years, Pennsylvania sends scores of delegates to the Republican National Convention, there to perform a ceremonial and statistically insignificant task: cast their votes in a presidential nomination roll call that is so predictable that the major television networks no longer carry it in full.
This time, all bets are off.
Come July 18, Pennsylvania will send 71 delegates to Cleveland, where that roll call may be the first of many in a contested convention in which Manhattan businessman Donald J. Trump could have the most delegates but not quite enough — 1,237 — to clinch the GOP nomination.
Depending on the results of the remaining state primaries and caucuses, the challenge for Mr. Trump could be twofold. He must keep the loyalty of delegates he has earned, and he may very likely have to convince uncommitted delegates to push him to a majority.
There are forces — as well as at least two other candidates — working against him.
As anyone following the political process can tell you, the rules on selecting delegates are intricate, convoluted and vary from state to state and party to party.
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist from Cumberland County who has been a delegate to several GOP conventions, predicts that Pennsylvania will be “the epicenter of the political universe” in Cleveland this summer.
“There will be no larger block of uncommitted delegates in Cleveland than the Pennsylvania delegation,” he said.
The Keystone State will send 71 delegates to the GOP convention, but only 17 of them will be pledged to the winner of the primary. State rules lock in 10 at-large delegates (chosen by the state committee May 21), four bonus delegates and three state committee officers for the first ballot, but that commitment expires if the first ballot fails to produce a winner.
The other 54 delegates — three from each of the state’s 18 Congressional districts — will be elected by Republican voters in the April 26 primary.
The voters will indicate which presidential candidate they prefer, and then select delegates, whose names appear on the ballot next to the county in which they live.
“We’ve stuck with our system and our rules, and I think that says a lot,” Mr. Gerow said. “On the Republican side, there is no indication of a delegate’s preference or allegiance to any candidate. Historically, name recognition and ballot position have controlled who won the delegate races.”
Pennsylvania’s Democrats do things differently. That party’s ballots list delegates and the candidate they support. (For example, William Peduto for Hillary Clinton, Gisele B. Fetterman for Bernie Sanders.)
In a way, the difference reflects the parties’ approaches to government. Democrats strive for more accountability — in part for problems encountered at past conventions — while Republicans prefer more individual freedom.
This year, that freedom will give the Pennsylvania delegation the opportunity to make deals and influence potential outcomes.
The possibility of negotiating support brings back memories of the sway Pennsylvania had at the 1976 GOP convention, when former California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald R. Ford.
Mr. Gerow said old-timers still talk of how Mr. Ford had the Pennsylvania delegation to the White House for dinner. Mr. Reagan, for his part, announced that Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker would be his running mate.
“The Pennsylvania delegates were very actively and aggressively pursued, in every way that [the campaigns] could legally do,” Mr. Gerow said. “Reagan’s move didn’t work, but it was a bold move, and at the time it looked like it might work.”
Mr. Ford was nominated on the first ballot.
History in the making
It has been two-thirds of a century since a Republican convention (Philadelphia, 1948) has gone to a second ballot, a process in which almost no one alive has participated.
It’s a process that Allegheny County Councilwoman Sue Means of Bethel Park is looking forward to experiencing.
Her previous convention experiences have been wonderful, she said, but she found it frustrating to have the candidate chosen before the convention began, effectively turning the event into a coronation.
This year, she could have a role that generations of her predecessors were denied. She, along with hundreds of others, actually could determine the outcome of a convention.
“I’m sure there will be more meetings and more work this time. But I’m up for it,” said Mrs. Means, who is a strong supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “It was a disappointment to me the last time to get there and have it all said and done.
“I’m not going to be a doo-wop background singer, rah-rah. Last time, we were just really a cheering squad. It could be a lot of work, but I volunteered to be a part of the process. And I know it’ll be a lot of fun either way.”
“There will be tremendous pressure on uncommitted delegates and even committed delegates who are only committed for one ballot,” said Mr. Gerow, an early supporter of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina who dropped out of the race Feb. 10. Ms. Fiorina has endorsed Mr. Cruz, but Mr. Gerow has yet to connect with one of the remaining candidates, choosing instead to remain a free agent.
“Before, we didn’t have to make the decisions,” Mr. Gerow said. “The truth is that for most conventions I’ve attended, the delegates were props in a political play. They were there to cheer the speeches and provide the backdrop for a well-orchestrated show.
“But this year it’s going to be serious business and the delegates will play a vital and pivotal role.”
Most of the delegate candidates are experienced, political junkies who have attended multiple conventions, Mr. Gerow said. Their role may change this year — from supporters to deciders — but he expects to see a lot of familiar faces in Cleveland.
“But every cycle there are new ones, and there will be many who are attending a convention for the first time,” he said. “There’s tremendous energy on the Republican side, and there are a lot of new voters. But I don’t see this convention as being intimidating at all. I find it exhilarating, and I suspect that 99.99 percent of the delegates feel the same way. They’re going to go there to do a serious job, but they’re going to have a good time doing it. Conventions are a lot of fun.”
L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine and an expert on party conventions, said the campaigns of Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich already are working to identify delegates who will be at the convention.
“They want people who are very loyal to them,” he said.”They’re going to want somebody that they can control, or at least influence.
“It’s not going to be a brokered convention, because I don’t think there are brokers anymore. There aren’t any more David Lawrences. Who is going to tell the Trump people what to do next? Who is going to tell the Cruz people they have to go over to somebody else? The delegates are going to decide this year, and that means they become critically important.
“But will the three delegates elected from Erie do what the delegates from Pittsburgh or the ones from Philadelphia do? I don’t think so.”
As far as the primary is concerned, Mr. Gerow said the presidential candidates will be working to identify the delegate candidates who will stick with them. The campaigns then will get the word out to the voters: ”If you are a Trump supporter, vote for these delegates.”
“Pennsylvania hasn’t been targeted yet with the ads and the work, but it’s coming,” Mr. Gerow said. “As sure as Henry Hill marched down the street, it’s coming. This year’s Pennsylvania primary has the potential to be very, very highly focused.”
Dan Majors: email@example.com and 412-263-1456.
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