After months of tense dealings with Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee's biggest challenge is beginning to take shape: how to navigate a scenario in which Trump leads his challengers in votes and delegates heading into the convention, but loses the nomination.
On Thursday in Washington, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus met with Trump and his inner circle, with the billionaire and his aides inquiring about delegate rules and protocol. Trump is poised to head to the party's July convention just short of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. His leading rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, is already stoking the flames of a “Stop Trump” movement, and organizing an elaborate operation to win every delegate at the Cleveland convention.
Trump has been adamant that the candidate with the most votes and delegates—even if that candidate misses the majority threshold—should be the party's nominee. In an MSNBC town hall on Wednesday, he described the process as “unfair.”
“I have millions of more votes—that's my leverage,” Trump said.
A Bloomberg Politics national poll in March showed that 63 percent of Republican voters support Trump's view that the candidate with the most delegates and voters should win the nomination.
But party rules dictate a series of votes to determine the nominee, should he or she fail to break the 1,237-delegate threshold. RNC officials have launched a public-relations push in recent weeks to educate voters and the media about the process. They described it on their website and planned to host a conference call with reporters on Friday. The push signals the beginning of an effort by the party to lay the groundwork for what could unfold, and encourage voters to support the result.
“Donald Trump may well end up having the most votes anyone has ever gotten in a Republican primary this time. That was true for Mrs. Clinton and she didn't get the nomination,” in 2008, said Ron Kaufman, a member of the RNC's rules committee. “The thing that the party has to do is to make sure the voters believe their votes matter to keep them in the party for November.”
A Pew Research Center poll taken last month underscored how difficult that task may be. Just 38 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning voters said the party would unite solidly behind Trump if he’s the nominee, while 56 percent said disagreements within the party will keep many Republicans from supporting him.
RNC officials at Thursday's meeting raised concerns that Trump could portray the party as having tainted the process in favor of a particular candidate, said a person familiar with the meeting who asked not to be named so as to discuss the matter more freely. Trump declined to state one way or the other what his strategy would be, but reiterated that he expected to be treated fairly in the process, the person said.
The party said in a statement released Thursday that Trump and Priebus “had a productive conversation about the state of the race.”
Kaufman said party officials “have to make sure the RNC runs the convention by the rules, openly, honestly and transparently. And making sure people understand the rules so it's clear that we're doing it by the book.”
That's what voters—both Trump critics and detractors, and those still undecided—say they want. “The establishment has been picking our candidates for years,” said Pattie Krych of Appleton, Wisconsin, who said she's undecided between Trump and Cruz. “They just need to let the process play out. If Trump wins, so be it—he's who we picked.”
Dan Brown of Brodhead, Wisconsin, said he's voting for Trump and is skeptical that RNC officials are already trying to take the nomination away from him. “If they have a way to screw Trump out of the nomination, they will,” he said. “And I won't vote in a general election if they do. They're telling me that my vote means nothing.”
In recent weeks, Trump has sought to formalize a delegate strategy. He hired Paul Manafort, an iconic Washington political strategist, to head up his delegate strategy, with Ben Carson's former campaign manager, Barry Bennett, helping him.
“Someone is going to win and someone will lose and usually losers aren't happy,” said Kaufman, who has not endorsed a candidate. “All we can do is make sure it's honest and transparent by the rules. It's going to be fine in the end. I have no idea what's going to happen. I don't believe anyone does.”