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The secret delegate battle that will decide the 2024 Republican nominee

The battle for delegates is chaotic, expensive, and widely misunderstood — and can make or break a presidential candidate.

Donald Trump stands at a lectern.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023, in Waco, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

One of the great reminders for many Americans during the course of Donald Trump’s two presidential elections was how little the popular vote matters for the White House. Although Trump fell short nationally by 3 million votes in 2016 and 7 million votes in 2020, both elections were breathtakingly close due to the vagaries of the Electoral College. Yet, for as obscure as the Electoral College can seem to some voters, the process by which major party presidential candidates are nominated is far more obscure.

So far, the 2024 Republican presidential primary has captured obsessive media coverage, with Trump recently extending his lead in the polls over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce a run for president soon. But the actual mechanics over how one becomes the Republican nominee have been overlooked. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, determining the Republican candidate for president is a detailed and elaborate process with hundreds of moving parts designed to eventually produce a nominee at the Republican convention in Milwaukee in the summer of 2024.

A presidential primary often follows a well-known script: A broad field of candidates battle it out in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which winnow down the hopefuls to a handful before one candidate finally gains overwhelming momentum on Super Tuesday and eventually is heralded as the presumptive nominee. Along the way, candidates amass delegates state by state. In theory, those delegates will support their respective candidates at the party’s convention, where nominees are officially crowned.

But it doesn’t always come together that neatly. Presidential campaigns also have to be prepared for the nomination to be decided at the convention if no clear winner emerges from the primaries, and to take steps to ensure they have the support of a majority of the delegates there. These sorts of convention battles were once a fixture of American politics, although they have become uncommon in the modern era of presidential primaries. Most recently for Republicans, unelected incumbent Gerald Ford went into the 1976 convention without a majority of the delegates and only clinched the nomination on the convention floor.

Delegate wrangling is not a process that can wait until the last minute, though. It requires months, if not years, of work to build an operation that combines political outreach to party leaders, grassroots local organizing and a savvy legal team to be successful. Campaigns need to ensure not only that they have enough delegates pledged to them to win the nomination, but that those delegates will be loyal as well.

Unlike the Electoral College, primary rules aren’t set in stone in the Constitution, nor are delegates invariably hand-selected party loyalists as electors are in general elections. Instead, the process is far more mutable and subject to gamesmanship and alteration through state laws and party rules. These details don’t always matter.

But, in a close, heavily contested campaign, like that potentially between Trump and DeSantis in 2024, a delegate operation can make all the difference.

How the delegate process works

Fifty-six jurisdictions send delegations to the Republican National Convention — all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five territories — and all of them have different rules for how the process works. There are broad parameters set nationally by the Republican National Committee, but outside of that, it’s a free-for-all where each state can make its own rules.

The result is a cornucopia of contests. States can hold conventions, caucuses, or primaries. Some states are winner-take-all primaries, meaning that the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes gets all the delegates; some are proportional, meaning that delegates are awarded in proportion to what percentage of the vote each candidate receives; and some are mixed, with elements of both. In some states, candidates have to hand-pick and recruit delegates to stand on a ballot as their supporters. In others, the delegates are chosen in entirely different contests, elected by activists, and then assigned to the presidential candidates who emerge from the state’s primary.

The rules of the Republican presidential primary stand in stark contrast to the much more standardized process among Democrats, where all states are mandated to have proportional contests and are barred from winner-take-all races. Democratic delegates, which are awarded both by congressional district and statewide, are apportioned via a simple formula. If a candidate gets at least 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district, they receive delegates from that district, which are distributed proportionately among all the candidates who broke the 15 percent threshold. It works the same way for those delegates apportioned statewide.

The far less standardized Republican process means that campaigns can have much more influence on how the rules are written. Unlike the one-size-fits-all Democratic process, states can reconfigure their rules every cycle, and it gives opportunities for operatives to try to adjust them as needed.

In advance of the 2020 cycle, the Republican primary rules were changed extensively when the Trump campaign and the RNC worked state by state to make it tougher for gadfly candidates to challenge Trump’s nomination. In a number of states, the threshold needed for candidates to earn delegates was significantly increased. For example, in Massachusetts in 2016, a candidate only needed to win 5 percent of the vote statewide in order to earn delegates. But in 2020, this threshold was raised to 20 percent and a winner-take-all trigger was added. Coincidentally, the state’s former Republican governor Bill Weld was mounting a long-shot challenge to Trump, and its incumbent moderate governor Charlie Baker had been a vocal Trump critic. Needless to say, this meant Trump won all of the Bay State’s delegates as a result.

At this point, it is a bit difficult to forecast precisely what level of tinkering with state primary rules is ideal for a particular candidate, especially when the primary is so unsettled. The frontrunner is Trump, a former president who is facing indictment for paying off a porn star and has the potential to face criminal charges in multiple other jurisdictions as well. This is not a scenario anyone has seen before. Normally, candidates capable of making this type of investment early in a delegate operation are coming from traditional factions of the party, be they establishment, movement conservative, or even part of the GOP’s libertarian cadre.

Further, the rules for the Republican primary are in the process of being set in the coming weeks and months. Although states have until October 1 to formally submit their delegate selection plans to the RNC, most of them will not wait until the last minute. This means that if campaigns aren’t active now and putting in the necessary resources to have influence, the state rules will be set without them.

The current state of affairs greatly benefits the Trump campaign, which is the only one with a full-fledged operation at this point. This is one area where the former president has the benefits of incumbency. It’s not just that he has run two presidential campaigns, but that there was an entire White House political operation for four years that worked to court party activists and keep Trump in their good graces. Even with a DeSantis-aligned super PAC coming to life in recent weeks, the governor’s nascent operation still leaves him at a disadvantage.

What campaigns need to do to win delegates

Before building a delegate operation, the first challenge is qualifying for the presidential primary ballot. While in some states, the state GOP needs to simply recognize that a candidate is running a bona fide campaign or there is a nominal filing fee, others require intensive effort and labor for a candidate to have their name on a primary ballot — particularly at inopportune times. There are states, like Virginia and Indiana, that are notorious for their strenuous requirements for candidates to petition their way on the ballot, in both statewide and congressional districts.

These tests are important not just for their own sake, but also as a test of basic capacity. In 2012, only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul appeared on the Republican ballot in Virginia, which eased Romney’s path in a key Super Tuesday primary. If a campaign can’t qualify for the ballot in Indiana while wooing voters in Iowa, it’s not a good sign.

One of the early signs of organizational weakness from Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign was when it lagged on submitting the necessary paperwork for delegates in Alabama the year prior. Whereas a number of other campaigns filed candidates to fill all of the state’s 47 elected positions, Bush only was able to find enough supporters to fill a mere 29 of the delegate vacancies.

Other states require delegates and alternates to be filed long in advance from each congressional district they seek to represent. In the era of heavily partisan gerrymandering, this means that campaigns have to work to find sufficient supporters in deep blue areas — easier said than done. As Andrew Boucher, a veteran Republican consultant, told Vox, “Campaigns need to be ramping up on the political side right now, because some of these deadlines come fast. Who are your supporters in Ohio’s D+28 11th Congressional District in Cleveland?”

But the process of finding those delegates, even in Democratic strongholds, is not just important to ensure that campaigns can adequately fill out their designated slots on the ballot. Instead, it’s because the two-pronged process in many states separates the selection of delegates from delegate allocation, which means the process of candidates winning delegates is separate from the promise of determining who those delegates are. Delegate selection is about determining who will be a delegate and is chosen to go to the national convention. Delegate allocation is simply about which campaign they are credited for on primary night after the votes are counted. The distinction between the two is often academic. In all states, delegates have to vote for the candidate they are pledged for on the first ballot.

But for anything else up for a vote at the convention, they are otherwise free agents. Theoretically, they can even vote to change the rules to unbind themselves on the convention floor. In states like North Carolina and Georgia, delegates are elected at congressional district elections and the presidential primary merely serves to decide who they are pledged to cast their votes for on the convention floor.

This means the campaigns have to keep an eye on the delegate process at countless state contests. The risk is that they could win a state’s delegates and still end up with people who could potentially defect at a convention. This is not an issue in a blowout, but it always looms over the political battlefield in a close primary race. In 2016, delegates opposed to Trump’s nomination were eager to take advantage of this in order to force a second ballot and eventually keep Trump from being the nominee. After all, the convention floor was packed with party regulars who had no time for a crude New York real estate developer with a questionable commitment to social conservatism.

But Republicans narrowly avoided chaos. A motion to force a full fight on the floor of the convention in 2016 fell just short. At the time, the motion required the majority of eight delegations to sign their name to a document stating their support to put Ted Cruz’s name in nomination as an alternative to Trump. Although the eight-delegation benchmark was initially reached, backroom dealings and pressure led to various Republicans removing their names, and eventually, there was no rival for Trump on the convention floor. Since then, the threshold for placing a candidate into nomination at the convention has been lowered to a plurality of five delegations.

The question is how much any of this will matter in 2024. The formal ballot to determine the nominee on the convention floor has long been pro forma. No Republican convention has formally hit a second ballot since 1948, when Thomas Dewey won after three ballots, and no Republican convention has even started with the results uncertain since 1976, when unelected incumbent Gerald Ford edged out former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

In the end, campaigns are about priorities. There is only a finite amount of time, a finite amount of money, and a finite amount of resources available. And for a long-shot candidate, investing in delegate fights and doing the blocking and tackling to ensure ballot access in states that hold late primaries may not be worth it. After all, an extra visit to a single Pizza Ranch in Iowa might be worth a thousand congressional district conventions for an underdog on the eve of the caucuses.

However, delegate operations still matter. Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign was hurt by the fact that it was so resource-starved that it was difficult for it to fully take advantage of any momentum from its surprise performance in Iowa. And the investments made by Ted Cruz’s campaign early in the 2016 cycle made it that much more difficult for Trump to lock down the nomination.

For Trump and DeSantis, it is not likely that they will be scrimping for money or media attention in the weeks before the first nominating contest. But building up a delegates operation still matters for them — not just for a potential convention fight, but to demonstrate their strength and viability before the first votes are cast. Voters and donors want to back a winner, and a robust national campaign demonstrates the ability to win not only the nomination but potentially the general election as well.

In a world where so much is about the vagaries of the news cycle, delegate wrangling is one of the few aspects of politics that is entirely in control of campaigns — and almost entirely invisible to the public. It is about organization and effort. It forces campaigns to either display a certain fundraising prowess that enables them to muscle through these challenges or demonstrate the grassroots support needed to do so on the cheap. There are no shortcuts to it.

And if things get weird, next summer, in an arena in Milwaukee heated by lights from a thousand television cameras and packed with thousands of party loyalists battling a lack of sleep and a surplus of hangovers, it could determine who becomes the Republican nominee against Joe Biden.