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.
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.