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Behind The Scenes With 2016’s Delegate Hunters

On Friday, May 7, 1976, President Gerald Ford received a note from his chief of staff, Dick Cheney, asking him to make a phone call that weekend. Cheney’s memo to the president listed the number of a Fred Whaley, along with some pertinent details.

“Whaley is the County Chairman in the St. Louis area and is the key to the six delegates from the 6th and 3rd Districts,” Cheney wrote. “You did a fund raiser for Whaley five or six years ago and Whaley remembers it. You should call him Fred.”

There were three months left until the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, and Ford — locked in a battle for delegates to secure his party’s nomination against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan — was cooing into the ears of county chairmen the country over.

“The other side,” Cheney reminded the president, was working on Whaley as well.

Delegate hunting, a term that conjures to mind scenarios out of “The Most Dangerous Game,” was largely lost to the popular political world over the last four decades. This year, though, with three months left until the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the hunt has been revived.

“This isn’t rocket science, it’s hard work,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the delegate operations director for Ted Cruz, in an interview. “It’s staying on top of a lot of details, pursuing a lot of personal relationships.”

Cuccinelli, Virginia’s former attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate in 2013, has, by his own count, wrangled delegates in a half-dozen state-level contests, including two of his own races. “Kinda more intimate that way,” he said.1

Charlie Black, John Kasich’s delegate point man and a member of Reagan’s 1976 primary-season insurgency, agreed that the process was simple enough at its core. “You want to make friends with everybody,” he said.

There is still a chance, of course, that Donald Trump will get the 1,237 bound delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination before the convention, which would guarantee him a win on the first ballot. But while it is April, Cuccinelli, Black and Paul Manafort of the Trump campaign are living in July, their calendars paged forward to a contest on the convention floor. (The Trump campaign did not respond to interview requests for Manafort.) The campaign they are waging is what might be called the “sub-primary” for the second ballot, that political witching hour when delegates from all over the country will no longer be bound by rules stating they must vote for a particular candidate.

So, what does the hunt actually look like from the inside?

The campaigns are vague about discussing details, not wanting to open their playbooks, but history offers some clue to the process going on behind the scenes to identify the leanings of delegates, implement a courting infrastructure (a large scale political “will you go to prom with me?” for party insiders), and plan convention logistics.

It’s a battle that will be won by discovering the philosophies of individuals. Some might vote for the man in whom they fervently believe, while others feel an aversion to the idea of capriciously inserting their personal preference when the constituency they represent has voted otherwise. That makes the first task of campaigns figuring out who delegates are, and not just by address and telephone number, but by their existential political thinking as well.

“You get whatever voter info is available,” Cuccinelli said. “When you all in the media wrote stories on these folks, we read them. Some of them have a history of engagement.”

Black, whose campaign on behalf of Kasich relies on winning party pragmatists, outlined the ideological field of 2016.

“Being for Trump is a protest vote,” he said, “being for Cruz is a purity vote — ‘I hope he can win but whether or not he does, he’s the most pure ideologically.’ Voting for Kasich is winning.”

Even if they’re bound to somebody else right now, Black said, you don’t know what’s going to happen in a multiple ballot convention.

“A lot of those people that are elected delegates are party regulars and they’re going to be bound for a while,” he said, noting that Pennsylvania, which votes on Tuesday, would be a good state for their effort, “but once you get them freed up, John Kasich’s looking pretty good.”

Campaigns are also doubtless receiving advice from those Republican players concerned with the fractured state of the party. Cheney’s memo wasn’t the only note Ford got on May 7, 1976: Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee for president in 1964, offered his observations in a brief letter.

“You are not going to get the Reagan vote,” Goldwater wrote. “These are the same people who got me the nomination and they will never swerve.” He added: “Your speeches are a little bit too long.”

Once dossiers on delegates have been compiled, delegate hunting turns into a full-contact (list) sport.

“Field staff work with volunteers to try to line up their support,” Black said, “but then when it’s appropriate Kasich takes a call, or goes to meet a group of delegates in a state.” He noted that the Kasich team has “half a dozen full time staff devoted just to delegates.”

Cuccinelli declined to give the number of people the Cruz campaign has hired to fight for the second ballot, but he said he had “a decent collection of folks doing this — it’s not nearly adequate to the workload, but frankly, I don’t think anyone’s team is adequate to this workload.”

By all measures, the Cruz team is walking away with the second ballot sub-primary; in congressional district-level conventions around the country, where members of the party faithful are electing delegates, Cruz slates are frequent winners these days.

But Black, Reagan’s Midwest field director in 1976, said that the most crucial days of the hunt are still ahead. “The most important phase of this is between June 7 and July 18,” he said. “There’s five weeks where everyone will be courting actual delegates, it’s what I call the delegate chase.” (The last primaries, including California and New Jersey, are on June 7.)

“Some people love the attention of getting three phone calls from each campaign every day, others don’t want to hear all that,” Black said. “You have to know what will motivate them and how to handle them so you’re not, you know, imposing yourself on them. It’s just — it’s politics.”

On June 9, 1976, Peter Wallison, who had served as counsel in the Nixon administration, sent a memo that gives some insight into what sorts of talking points might be used on delegates, such as appeals to the future of the GOP.

“The first priority of the PFC’s [President Ford Committee] delegate operation should be to identify all delegates who might be likely to support Reagan despite the requirements of State law,” Wallison wrote. “These delegates should be approached individually and made to understand what effect their actions would have on the future of the Party.”

Wallison also noted that it might be best to send an emissary whose status would sufficiently impress delegates. Dick Ogilvie of Illinois, the state’s governor from 1969 to 1973, was suggested as a possibility. “As a former Governor he would be impressive to delegates in meetings,” Wallison wrote.

In 2016, though, “a lot of these delegates prefer to be communicated with through social media,” Black said. “We used to have to drive to their homes and sit down and talk to them.” Cuccinelli said that he was receiving more email these days than ever before.

As the spring churns away in district-level conventions, however, it’s likely that campaigns will begin to formulate convention plans. Roger Stone, a prominent Trump supporter, has talked about stalking delegate hotel rooms, and the candidate himself hinted at the potential for chaos in the streets. What’s more, legalistic concerns are likely to arise this year at the hotly anticipated rules committee meeting the week before the convention.

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A May 1976 strategy memo from the Ford campaign outlined logistical and personnel requirements for the convention in Kansas City, a lawyerly girding of loins.

“We need to get a key crack parliamentarian who is an expert on Robert’s Rules of Order,” according to one bullet point in the memo. Another called for a “strategy headquarters” at a separate “very secure area.” One can only imagine that similar memos — albeit ones ending in “sent from my iPhone” — will be circulated this year.

Cuccinelli acknowledged the significance of the moment.

“This is a historic competition,” he said. “We’re cognizant of that but it doesn’t really affect anything we do. We don’t do anything differently because we think someone may write a book about this. We just want to be on the winning side when the book is written.”


  1. Virginia’s Republican Party officially chooses its nominees for statewide office at a state convention, though candidates for top-of-the-ticket offices like governor are typically all but preordained choices.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.