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Even a popular candidate has to respect the party’s process

REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Donald Trump reportedly has improved his ground game with staff changes.

I’m no fan of the delegate route to get a nomination for public office. Maybe it’s just the bad memory of how, in 1994, delegates to the state GOP convention denied my boss, Gov. Arne Carlson, the endorsement for re-election. Delegates instead endorsed Allen Quist, whose wife, Julie, meticulously cultivated the support of grass-roots social conservatives.

But even a sitting governor with a 60 percent approval rating had to play by the party rules and respect the delegate process. So does Donald Trump.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson

Carlson had to go from defeat at the delegate level to victory in the primary. Trump must reverse the order for the presidential nomination, especially if he falls shy of the 1237 committed delegates to win on a first ballot. But like Carlson, he has to acknowledge the importance of grass-roots activism in party politics.

‘The unspoken contract’

“It’s the unspoken contract,” said one GOP party leader who preferred to be unnamed. “It’s the candidate’s job to motivate and excite the grass roots not only to contribute to his or her success, but the success of the party on Election Day.”

Trump, and Ted Cruz and John Kasich, know who these activists are. Moreover, what they haven’t learned through their own ground operations, the state parties will generally supply. The Minnesota Republican Party, for example, gave a list of 200,000 names to the candidates shortly after the precinct caucuses and updates the candidates weekly on who is advancing toward a national delegate slot.

By comparison, the Carlson campaign, having been denied endorsement, had to build its own list of active voters who would turn out for a primary. I was there at the campaign as teams of volunteers were dispatched to phone or door knock to remind and persuade voters to vote in the primary election. And this was on behalf of a candidate who had the bully pulpit of the governor’s office.

(There was a DFL primary as well in 1994. There the party did its grass-roots job, boosting turnout for endorsed candidate John Marty, who narrowly defeated Mike Hatch.)

Carlson’s efforts paid off not only in his primary victory. On Election Day, polls showed more than 80 percent of the state’s Republicans supported his candidacy, propelling him to a decisive win in November. A strong candidate became stronger by appealing to the GOP base.

‘You have to have a ground game’

The moral of the story, says the party leader: “You can’t run a campaign on CNN and Twitter. You have to have a ground game.”

Trump reportedly has improved his ground game with staff changes. And he continues to hold a popularity edge with Republican voters, 60 percent of whom, according to a Wall Street Journal poll, say a plurality of delegates should be enough to win the nomination.

But the national Republican Party would have to change the rules to allow that — which it might if Trump were a consensus candidate among party leaders.

He’s not, although the Trump campaign appears to be admitting that bulldozing his way to nomination would further shred the Republican Party. The question now is whether an active effort to understand the role of the delegates is too little too late to result in a stronger candidate and a party that will stand behind him on Election Day.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/25/2016 - 12:04 pm.

    Process v. Substance

    “But even a sitting governor with a 60 percent approval rating had to play by the party rules and respect the delegate process.”

    I would suggest that if Governor Carlson had chosen to play by party rules and to respect the delegate process, he would not have run for re election.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/25/2016 - 12:50 pm.


    I had forgotten about that. The Republicans not endorsing the sitting governor was maybe the dumbest thing that has ever happened in Minnesota politics.

    Did you work for Carlson in 1990? The Grunseth pool party implosion was pretty crazy too.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/25/2016 - 02:22 pm.

    Randy Kelly

    For me, the dumbest, most inexplicable thing in the history of Minnesota politics was St. Paul mayor Randy Kelly endorsing George Bush for president in 2004. Arne Carlson was something of an odd duck existing sort of outside conventional Minnesota party politics. He just wasn’t very much of a Republican. He had sort of slipped into the governorship 4 years earlier when the Republican nominee Jon Grunseth imploded before the election.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/25/2016 - 04:52 pm.


      I think Kelly got about 30 percent against Coleman. That was just political suicide.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/26/2016 - 11:16 am.

      Possible Explanation

      I wondered at the time if Mayor Kelly’s endorsement of George W Bush was an attempt to curry favor with Governor Pawlenty. The endorsement came at a time when there was much discussion about where a new Twins stadium would be located, and Kelly wanted it to be located in St. Paul.

      That makes the endorsement explicable. It was still dumb–I recall how wounded he sounded when his endorsement was an issue in his re-election bid. If he didn’t want a reaction, he should have stayed quiet.

      • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/27/2016 - 10:33 am.

        That’s one interesting stab at an explanation, and I certainly don’t have a better one to offer. The Kelly story is now old news to the point of long ago ceasing to be news at all, but as a political junkie, it amazed me at the time and I still wonder about it.

        In any event, what surprised me in this column was that Gov. Carlson had respect for the Republican political process that denied him the nomination. At the time, I had a sense that he simply brushed it aside as an event of no consequence or significance. Maybe he felt differently behind closed doors.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/25/2016 - 03:37 pm.

    The root problem: the 2 party system.

    A wide open single primary with ranked-choice voting to put the top contenders (2, 3, or 4 perhaps) on the statewide ballot in November would bring an end to this pernicious duopoly, at least here in MN.

  5. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 04/25/2016 - 07:14 pm.

    Hadn’t been for that pool Grunseth might have been president.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/26/2016 - 11:17 am.

      Not Just the Pool

      There was also the hotel that turned over its guest register, proving that he was a serial adulterer who lied about it.

      He tried to sue the hotel over its disclosure. No, it didn’t work.

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