As Donald Trump attempts to box out his rivals for the Republican nomination and prevent a contested convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is leveraging his campaign's superior organization to undermine the GOP front-runner's efforts.
With more than half of delegates already distributed, Trump, the billionaire businessman, may fall short of the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright by the last GOP primary on June 7.
The nominating contests are often portrayed as a numbers game: A candidate can collect delegates en masse by winning the popular vote in a state, or a few at a time in states where delegates are apportioned. But in a contested convention, the few thousand people who serve in those roles – chosen by a complicated process that differs from state to state – will hold the power to select the GOP nominee.
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Several hundred delegates will head into the July 18 Republican National Convention uncommitted, either because they were initially pledged to a candidate that has since dropped out of the race, or because they're from states like Colorado and North Dakota that don't require their delegates to commit to a candidate.
All three remaining candidates are assiduously courting those unbound delegates, and their success could determine whether Trump, who has a wide lead over Cruz in the delegate count, sews up the nomination on the first ballot in Cleveland, or whether the convention turns into a contested free-for-all.
For Trump, maximizing his pledged delegates as the remaining states cast their primary votes could make all the difference. Despite his lead, most analysts calculate he'll end up just shy of the 1,237 delegates, based on his prior performance in earlier contests and the electoral profiles of the states still to come in the campaign.
Barry Bennett, a former Ben Carson operative now in charge of Trump's delegate strategy, told NBC News that the campaign has already rolled out a massive effort to reach unpledged delegates and secure commitments from them in advance.
"You've got 40 days between the last primary and the convention to go woo the appropriate number of unbound delegates," Bennett said. "You still have a chance to put together 50 or 75 delegates to win on the first ballot. That's Phase One."
Imperiling this strategy is the convoluted way the state parties choose the delegates to send to Cleveland. Many states have multiple selection levels at which potential delegates are winnowed down from a pool – chosen from lists submitted by the candidates and active members of the local party – into the representatives who will eventually travel to Cleveland.
Trump's campaign is working to shore up commitments from the delegates they believe they already have, which would be crucial to building support in the event of a second ballot, when many delegates are free to switch their votes.
But Cruz, whose campaign has shown a knack for targeting small pockets of voters in the primaries to help drive up his delegate total, is putting its knowledge of the inside game to good use.
In at least two states, Louisiana and Georgia, Team Cruz has improved its position by getting its people assigned to key committees that could play an outsize role in an open convention.
On Thursday, Cruz's Louisiana supporters secured five of the state's six spots on the three committees responsible for writing the convention rules, shaping the party platform, and handling eligibility disputes in Cleveland, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Cruz and Trump both netted 18 delegates in the state's March 5 primary, in which Trump edged Cruz by 3.6 percentage points.
But the five delegates Florida Sen. Marco Rubio earned are free to back another candidate, and state party officials say they expect them to line up behind Cruz in July. If the state's five unbound delegates follow suit, it could hand Cruz a 10-delegate advantage over Trump, even though he lost the state.
A similar scenario in Coweta County, Georgia, last week exposed the relative inexperience of Trump's delegate team.
Trump won the county by 12 points in the Super Tuesday primary, but Cruz's supporters had secured a majority of positions to the county convention during precinct meetings before the voting even took place.
Cruz's allies from the county will outnumber Trump's about 9-to-1 at the district convention on April 16, and while those who end up in Cleveland will still be bound proportionally to Trump, they are almost certain to switch to Cruz in the case of a second ballot.
Nevertheless, Trump has expressed confidence in his ability to clinch the nomination by June, and will almost certainly come into the convention with more pledged delegates than either Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who's running a distant third to Trump and Cruz.
Trump threatened "riots" if convention rules end up allowing another candidate to swipe the nomination from him, a statement he later walked back. But in the end, if that happens, he may have no one but himself – and his lack of a robust campaign organization – to blame.
Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report