Trump aides plot '2-phase' strategy to win potential contested convention

Who Are the Delegates That Could Pick the GOP Nominee?
Who Are the Delegates That Could Pick the GOP Nominee?

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has a clear answer to questions about a contested convention in Cleveland — it's not happening.

"I know the press likes to talk about the brokered convention," he told NBC this week, "but I think we're doing really well."

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The dealmaker, however, is not leaving anything to chance.

While Trump publicly dismisses talk of a battle in Cleveland, he is quietly assembling a team of seasoned operatives to manage a contested convention. Their strategy, NBC has learned, is to convert delegates in the crucial 40 days between the end of the primaries and the convention - while girding for a floor fight in Cleveland if necessary.

The outreach is already underway.

"We are talking to tons of delegates," says Barry Bennett, a former Ben Carson campaign manager now leading the delegate strategy for Trump.

Under Republican Party rules, a candidate who wins a majority of 1,237 delegates during the primaries clinches the presidential nomination. If no candidate wins that majority, delegates vote on the nominee at an open convention.

Related: What Is a Brokered Convention?

Bennett says the campaign has planned two distinct phases for winning in an open convention.

First, there is a window to lock down delegate commitments between the last primary on June 7 and the convention start on July 18.

"You've got 40 days between the last primary and the convention," Bennett says, "to go woo the appropriate number of unbound delegates." It's a long time if the gap is small.

"You still have a chance to put together 50 or 75 delegates to win on the first ballot," Bennett says, "that's Phase One."

The campaign could obtain signed, public commitments from those delegates in June — signaling to the rest of the party that Trump will be the nominee. Sources in the Trump campaign say this approach thwarts a key premise of the "Stop Trump" effort, which assumes a long floor fight if Trump finishes the primaries without a delegate majority.

The campaign believes, however, that it could line up those personal commitments from the remaining delegates. Then it would march into Cleveland with an orderly victory on the first ballot.

The math shows that this is an achievable path.

There are now 323 delegates currently up for grabs on the first ballot. These are delegates who backed Rubio and Carson or hail from states that don't bind their vote, (such as Colorado and North Dakota).

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If Trump falls short by 100 delegates, he could close the gap by locking in one out of three of those unbound delegates. That is certainly possible, considering he has won about 37 percent of all votes so far.

It is a point that may be lost on some still rooting for a long contested convention — if Trump keeps winning primaries, he won't need many of the convention delegates.

Still, the campaign has assembled a delegate team of about a dozen people ready to game out these convention scenarios.

The team includes Trump's general counsel, former FEC commissioner Don McGahn, former Carson aides such as Jason Osborne, who handled floor operations at past conventions, and Ed Brookover, a former RNC political director with deep ties to Washington Republicans.

The hires come as the Cruz campaign is already proving it is trying to out-organize Trump at state party conventions, where they can add to their delegate count in order to better position themselves to stop Trump in Cleveland. Only two states have held those local conventions so far, and Cruz successfully added to his delegate count in Louisiana earlier this month.

Asked to assess this "Phase One" strategy — picking off delegates before the convention — a former high-ranking RNC official praised Trump's team, but warned there's no way to know if the plan works before delegates are chosen at state conventions.

"They have an experienced team in place to do it," the former official said, "but I don't know how you gauge success before you know who the delegates are."

'Every Man and Woman for Themselves'

Trump faces an even more unpredictable process on the convention floor if he does not lock in a clear delegate majority before Cleveland.

If no candidate clinches the nomination on the first ballot, there are new rounds of voting, and the rules allow delegates to switch teams.

An operative on Trump's convention team, who was not authorized to speak on the record, described Phase Two as an effort to prevent attrition in that balloting.

"Our goal," the aide says, "is to make sure every delegate Trump has now stays a Trump delegate on the second ballot."

The horse-trading also intensifies on later balloting.

"It's every man and woman for themselves," Bennett said, "and that's when the negotiations start."

"It's everything from, 'Come campaign in our state,' or 'Do a fundraiser for a state party,' or 'Put stronger language about right to life in the platform,'" he said. "Or all kinds of crazy things that are important to whoever the delegate is."

The challenge for the Trump campaign will be closely tracking which delegates want to bargain, and what the campaign can deliver in return.

One campaign operative, who joined Trump's convention team during the primaries, expressed surprise at that effort already in the works.

"I think the mistaken impression is that they weren't playing by the traditional rules before," said the campaign staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "One of the pleasant surprises I had, when I joined, was that the state directors were already engaged in the process."

Even some of Trump's detractors concede he is well-positioned to win even a contested convention.

"It's like a recount — always better to go into it with a lead," Stuart Stevens, a former Romney campaign strategist, told NBC NEWS.

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'Mathematically Unfair'

While his convention team prepares, Trump is publicly casting any challenge to his nomination as either dangerous or unfair.

In a CNN interview on March 17, Trump said "I think you'd have riots" if delegates blocked him from the nomination at the convention.

This week, he told Fox Business it would be "mathematically unfair" if he lost the nomination after winning 400 more delegates than Cruz. On Monday, he called the majority delegate requirement "unfair" seven times, arguing that it's too hard for the front-runeer to win 50 percent in a race with over 5 candidates.

Convention Insurance

Several campaign sources stressed that Trump's convention operation is an insurance policy for an unlikely event.

Bennett says the campaign's internal projections show Trump will finish the primaries with about 1,450 delegates. That number was top of mind for the candidate himself this week, as he offered reporters a tour of his new hotel at Washington's Old Post Office.

"If we do pretty well — just pretty well — we're at 1400," he told NBC News.

To win the bare 1,237 delegate majority, Trump would need to win 54 percent of the remaining delegates, an achievable outcome according to NBC estimates.

Most of the remaining states award delegates by essentially rounding up, with winner-take-all Congressional Districts, a potential benefit for whichever candidate is finishing strong. Cruz currently trails Trump by 281 delegates, after winning all 40 delegates in Utah this week, a winner-take-all state.

For Republican insiders, if Trump finishes a little shy of 1,237 delegates, the key question may not be whether it's theoretically possible to stop him in Cleveland — but whether it is practical.

An RNC official working on convention planning said party insiders increasingly expect Trump to be the nominee, which impacts how hard people really want to push a lost cause.

"Lee Atwater always told us, 'If it's happening, be for it,'" said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This is happening."