Mel Bingaman couldn’t be more excited to cast her vote for Donald Trump – “a real man of the people,” she says, when Pennsylvania and four other states hold primary elections on Tuesday.
But a reminder here at a raucous Trump rally to also notch her ballot for delegates who have committed to vote for her candidate at the Republican convention this summer left her baffled.
“I know I’m going to vote for Mr. Trump,” the Selinsgrove nurses aide said, emerging from the rally with a yard sign and a campaign button. “But I don’t know about this delegate business. Who am I supposed to vote for?”
With the possibility that the Republican presidential nomination won’t be wrapped up until the July convention, Pennsylvania and its unique method of picking delegates who will cast the actual votes at the convention could play a critical role and serve as a test case for Trump’s efforts to professionalize his campaign and nab delegates, not just the popular vote.
The top Republican vote-getter in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary wins just 17 statewide delegates. Three more delegates are allocated to state party leaders.
But the bulk of the state’s votes – 54 – go to delegates who are elected by congressional districts and are not obligated to be faithful to any candidate. And there will be no indication on the ballot whether or not they favor a particular candidate, though many have made their intentions known.
Trump supporters see the rules as another hurdle imposed by what they view as hostile Republican Party apparatchiks, though the process has been used for years. But this time the delegates are critical because Trump, despite winning more states than his rivals, is still short of the 1,237 delegates required to nab the nomination ahead of the convention.
They’re doing everything they can to keep Trump out. It used to be you just voted, now it’s wait a minute, there are all these insiders.
Trump supporter Mel Bingaman
Pennsylvania polls show that Trump has a wide lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But that lead won’t translate into a big delegate win unless voters can figure out which of the delegates in the individual congressional districts support Trump’s candidacy.
Each congressional district gets three delegates, and their position on the ballot was determined by lottery. Some of the candidates are better known than others, including state senators and representatives.
The Cruz campaign has identified candidates that support him; in a memo this week, Kasich strategist John Weaver said the campaign is “focused on supporting delegate candidates who will work at the convention to nominate the most electable candidate in the fall.” Kasich met with some of the prospective delegates last week, he told the editorial boards of the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.
The Trump campaign has already scored commitments from delegate candidates, but is only now making a major push for them. Marc Scaringi, a local attorney who hopes to win election as a delegate pledged to Trump, said the campaign reached out to him in December about volunteering, but that it was his decision to run for a delegate spot.
He secured the required signatures to run without campaign assistance and has paid for radio spots, pitching his candidacy.
In recent weeks, he said, the campaign has stepped up its efforts.
“It looks like the campaign has landed on the ground and is working hard for its delegates,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged an uphill fight: his is the 14th name on a 15-candidate ballot.
The outreach comes even as Trump has accused the Republican National Committee of rigging the process to prevent him from reaching the number of delegates needed to capture the nomination.
“I could win Pennsylvania by a landslide, get 17 delegates, and somebody else could get, like, 30 or 40, and they don’t even win,” Trump said last week on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” program. “But they have connections into the machine. It’s not right. It’s not right.”
At a rally at the Pennsylvania Farm Show here Thursday, Trump urged voters to get out and vote for him. But he didn’t mention the importance of the congressional district delegates. That was left to one of his warm-up acts, Rep. Lou Barletta, a co-chair of Trump’s Pennsylvania’s campaign, who told the crowd it’s “very important when you go to vote that you know who the Donald Trump delegates are.”
The Morning Call of Allentown surveyed all 162 Republican delegate candidates and found that of those who responded, the largest share – 49 – said they would support whichever candidate won the most votes in their congressional district.
Trump had the support of 30 delegate candidates, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was backed by 22. The newspaper said another 21 said they were uncommitted, and others said they’d base their convention vote on other factors, such as the statewide winner.
But the Trump devotees who will cast votes for those delegates professed bewilderment at the selection process and said beyond Trump they’re uncertain how to vote.
“I’ve obviously got some research to do between now and Tuesday,” said Phillip Thompson, a Carlisle truck driver who attended the rally. “What a crazy system.”
Volunteers at a Trump campaign headquarters that opened just last Monday in nearby Mechanicsburg said few voters are familiar with the delegate process. They’re pointing voters to a delegate website and have printed up flyers and voter cards with the names of delegates who have pledged to stick with Trump. They make certain that every Trump fan arriving in hopes of a lawn sign leaves with the delegate material.
“People have no idea how it works,” said Angela Zaydon, a lobbyist who has taken to Facebook to tell Trump supporters how to vote for delegates. “They don’t understand their vote on a delegate could cancel out the person they actually voted for.”
Al Peterlin, 70, a retired meteorologist, said he’s been voting his entire life and didn’t realize he’d need to pay attention to the delegates until a caller to a conservative radio show raised the issue last week.
I don’t want to send someone we can’t trust to deal with this party.
Trump supporter Al Peterlin
Donna Ricupero estimates that 75 to 80 percent of Trump supporters don’t know who the delegates are, and she was disappointed that Trump himself didn’t make a pitch at the rally, which she said would’ve been seen by thousands.
“My concern is that people voting are going to see a name they recognize, or just go for the top three and vote,” she said. “Then we could be left with people who support Ted Cruz. I’m worried about the games they’re playing with the delegates.”