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Will Pennsylvania’s GOP primary trump the party’s convention?

April 20, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


The April 26 Republican primaries in five states might go a long way toward deciding the GOP nominee in Cleveland. But how could Pennsylvania be the ultimate “party pooper” for favorite Donald Trump?

Trump-536The New York billionaire businessman had been expected to do well in Tuesday’s New York primary. But even a clean sweep of delegates from the Empire State won’t get Trump to the magical delegate number of 1,237 in Cleveland, which guarantees a first ballot Trump nomination. Instead, it could be a slate of 54 Pennsylvania delegates that makes the difference between a quick Trump win, or a contested convention.

In the current rules for Republican delegate selection, the state party leaders determine in advance how delegates are selected. The Pennsylvania primary for the GOP is an oddity. Of the state’s 71 delegates, just 17 delegates go to the candidate with the most votes in the state. The remainder, 54 delegates, are party leaders or others on the primary ballot using their own names. For example, if John Doe runs as a delegate in the 1st Congressional District, there is no indication on the ballot if Doe is a surrogate for Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich. Each of 18 districts selects three delegates, who are free to vote at the convention for the eligible candidate of their choice. (This is what is known as a Loophole Primary.)

On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. There are 2,472 delegates at the convention, and the number of 54 unpledged Pennsylvania delegates comes to about 2 percent of that total. Except in 2016, the delegate count for Trump is projected to be very close to the magical nomination number of 1,237 delegates.

For example, Nate Silver’s in recent weeks has estimated Trump’s delegate count before Cleveland at between 1,175 and 1,208 delegates, based on surveys of experts. That puts Trump between 29 and 62 delegates short before figuring in the unpledged delegates.

In all, The Green Papers website lists a total of 108 uncommitted or unpledged delegates in play, from Pennsylvania and five other states/territories (North Dakota, Colorado, America Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands). Of North Dakota’s 25 unpledged delegates, Politico reported that 18 of 25 of these delegates already have committed to Ted Cruz and one delegate is committed to Trump. That leaves Pennsylvania as the “free agent” prize among the undeclared delegates.

Silver believed that Trump could benefit from some support among the undeclared in Pennsylvania. “They’ll potentially be more amenable to Trump and are an underrated means by which he might get to 1,237 delegates if he pulls up a bit short after California,” he said in an analysis from April 13 – citing a Pittsburgh newspaper poll showing half of the delegates running would support the statewide winner.

In our own projections of Trump’s possible delegate numbers, we did some back-of-the-envelope math using data from The Green Paper’s website, which has extensive delegate information. Assuming that Trump takes almost of New York’s delegates, the at-large delegates in winner-take-all or winner-take-most primaries, and about 60 percent of delegates in California and six other states, our projected number for Trump is 1,194 delegates, which is in the middle of Silver’s last two estimates.

But not all estimates discount Trump’s chances for a clean first ballot win. Richard E. Berg-Andersson from The Green Papers believes if Trump can reach 925 delegates after the April 26 primaries, “his campaign is in pretty good shape” heading toward the convention. To hit that mark, Trump would need a near-sweep in New York, all the at-large delegates in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and 40 percent of the allocated delegates in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland. (And that doesn’t include Pennsylvania’s unpledged delegates.)

In that scenario, Trump could easily gain momentum from his win in New York and a likely strong showing in the other April 26th states (Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island) to move past the 1,237 threshold without needing unpledged delegates.

To be sure, California also will play a big role in determining the GOP winner with its 172 delegates in play on June 7th.  And the May 3rd Indiana primary could be a critical test, if Trump can remain competitive in the Hoosier state.

But if Trump is short but within striking distance after California, the Pennsylvania block of 54 unpledged delegates could be a critical factor. The remaining candidates also could be hunting for at least 31 delegates formerly pledged to Marco Rubio. And there are some delegations, like America Samoa, Guam, Louisiana and Wyoming, sending uncommitted party leaders to Cleveland as delegates.

Within Pennsylvania, there isn’t a lot of talk, at least publicly, from the 162 candidates for the delegate slots about their preferences for a GOP nominee. The website contacted many of the delegate candidates; of those who responded, about 40 percent said they would probably vote to reflect the presidential nominee candidate who gets the most votes in their district.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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