Donald Trump won a resounding victory in Senator Marco Rubio’s home state, prompting to Rubio to end his campaign. He picked up 99 delegates in this winner-take-all contest. But all is not what it seems. Trump supporters thrill to see their candidate landing the biggest prize of the day and taking a big step towards securing the Republican nomination. Yet those delegates he just won may not stay in his column for long.
The entire rationale for Marco Rubio staying in the race through Florida was to act as a spoiler to Donald Trump. The theory went that if he could win Florida he could help deny Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot. He failed to win Florida, but the other campaigns and party bosses have gone forward with plans to deny Trump the nomination by selecting Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio supporters to serve as Trump delegates at the convention.
The election rules in each state are pretty simple: Win the election and get the delegates. Some states award delegates proportionately while others, like Florida, are winner-take-all. What is anything but simple is how the delegates themselves are selected. Delegates are actual people who must make the trip to the convention in Cleveland in July and cast their vote. And these delegates have their own allegiances. They are also generally selected by party bosses at the state level – a group that is largely hostile to Donald Trump. You might think the delegates personally support the candidates for whom they are bound to vote on the first ballot – and usually you’d be right – but not this year. Because of the way delegates are selected insiders are using the process to get their people to the convention and deny Trump the nomination. Right now there is a battle going on in the shadows to select delegates who will change their votes on the second ballot if Donald Trump does not win a majority on the first.
The scene isn’t pretty and exposes all of the complaints against GOP elites and insiders that have Trump supporters up in arms in the first place. It could get ugly. Here’s what’s happening now.
On Saturday morning, while the candidates were scattered across Ohio and Florida, Illinois and Missouri, Cruz’s campaign was back in Iowa trying to wring another victory out of the state that gave him the first win of the primary season. After Iowa Republicans caucused on Feb. 1, diehards who stuck around their precinct got the chance to elect a local delegate to the county convention. It was those 1,681 precinct delegates who attended conventions in each of Iowa’s 99 counties this weekend, where they selected from among themselves the delegates to subsequent conventions at congressional-district and state levels. Cruz’s victory awarded him eight of the state’s 30 delegates—Trump and Rubio each got seven—but his campaign saw that as a beginning rather than an end. Even after removing his paid staff from Iowa shortly after the caucuses, Cruz maintained an activist network. “We keep an organization in the state,” says Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager. “Two weeks out we make sure that all of the people who were whipped up leading up to the caucuses are ready for the convention.”
In many states, primaries and caucuses are just the most public face-off in a multi-step process to select the individual delegates who will choose the party’s nominee. Only a small share of the 2,472 total convention delegates are free to pick the candidate of their choice, regardless of the election’s outcome, on the first ballot, while about three-quarters of them are gradually freed to do so on subsequent votes. That means there is a small pool of so-called unbound delegates who are pure free agents, but a much larger number who can be recruited throughout the spring as double agents—delegates who arrive in Cleveland pledged to Trump, all the while working in cahoots with one of his opponents and confessing their true allegiances once it is safe to do so.
So while Trump supporters are celebrating their victories at the ballot box, there is another battle being waged where most people can’t see it and don’t even know it’s happening. Who wins could determine the next President of the United States. And every Republican voter should be paying attention because if the process overturns the expressed will of the voters it could do more to destroy the Republican Party than Donald Trump ever did.