Be Informed: Your Vote Does Indeed Count! GOP’s Delegates Will Play Huge Role

Chris Potter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - April 24, 2016


Robert Morris University professor Justin DePlato has studied political science for more than a decade. But his campaign to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention in July, he said, “is stuff that’s not in any book.”

He and other Pennsylvania Republicans are cramming for Tuesday’s primary, when GOP voters will select 71 delegates to help pick the party’s presidential nominee in Cleveland this summer.

Only 17 of those delegates are bound to support the candidate who wins the primary itself. The other 54, three apiece from each of the state’s 18 congressional districts, are elected directly. They can vote for whomever they choose, and — unlike on the Democratic side — voters will have no way of discerning from the ballot who, if anyone, each delegate supports.

“There’s a big gap between what voters know about these delegates and how delegates are going to act,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College. In recent years, being a delegate was a chance to hobnob and celebrate at a convention whose outcome was assured. But after the bruising fight between frontrunner Donald Trump and his rivals, no candidate may win the 1,237 delegates necessary to assure the nomination. It will then be up to convention delegates to select a standard-bearer.

“It’s gone from being a ceremonial trip to having a key role in picking the nominee,” Mr. Borick said. “It’s caught a lot of people off-guard.”

That includes some would-be delegates themselves.

State-by-State: Follow the full delegate race primary-by-primary to the first gavel at the national party conventions.

“I’ve never appreciated how this works, and I’ve voted in every election for more than 30 years,” said Larry Borland, a 12th district candidate. “There is something inherently messed up about it.”

The Post-Gazette reached out to 29 delegates running in congressional districts 12, 14 and 18. Of the 27 who responded, five said they backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while seven supported Donald Trump. Eleven said they’d vote for whichever candidate carries their district — at least in early rounds of convention voting. Four are promising only to use their best judgment.

Such pledges are no more binding than any other political promise. But “as a voter, I like to know where someone stands,” said District 12’s Joseph Sernell, who is standing with Mr. Trump. “I don’t like the wishy-washy stuff about seeing what the district does.”

“It’s arrogant to ask voters to be their delegate, and then pay no attention to their vote,” counters District 12’s Robert Howard.

“Who knows what will happen between now and July?” said Mary Ann Meloy of District 14, where promises are unnecessary because all three candidates are assured of a spot. “We have uncommitted delegates to deal with those circumstances.”

So far, none of the region’s candidates has publicly pledged to back Ohio Gov. John Kasich, though his election strategy depends on rallying delegates to his side in July.

“Our goal is to tell delegates everything we can about Gov. Kasich,” said campaign spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach. “That’s an ongoing process: It doesn’t end Tuesday.”

She said disclosing supporters was “a strategic decision” that weighed factors including “the safety issue.” Delegates in other states have reported receiving death threats — a reflection of widespread distrust for the political establishment.

Local candidates said they’d received no threats, but did see signs of wariness. Sam Miclot has pledged to back the winner of his 12th District, but said, “People ask, ‘How can I trust you’ll actually do that?’ ”

“I’m pursuing a political career,” answers Mr. Miclot, the 24-year-old chief of staff to Murrysville state Rep. Eli Evankovich. “Lying right off the bat would be good way to end it.”

For now, some delegates are getting the kind of media attention that even a U.S. Senate candidate might envy.

“I’ve never been part of a campaign where voters seek you out,” said Mr. Sernell, borough council president in Geistown, Cambria County. And he said he’d gotten enough calls from reporters, including national media, that “I get a lot of teasing locally” about the attention.

Being a delegate is not a great business proposition, however: Several candidates said they expect to spend more than $3,000 in party fees and travel costs if they make it to Cleveland. That’s on top of whatever they spend campaigning — several hundred dollars for signs and mailers in some cases.

Delegates supporting Mr. Trump, in particular, have their own grassroots support network. District 12’s Gabriel Keller has let a visiting fellow Trump delegate stay at his house, for example, and has posted the names of pro-Trump delegates on a widely consulted website. “It’s been nuts — a phone call every 7 minutes” and an appearance on CNN, he said.

Nationally, there has been speculation that presidential campaigns might try to buy delegates’ loyalty by, say, covering their convention costs. So far, candidates here say they’ve been offered nothing more than chances to meet with Mr. Kasich and Mr. Cruz, and to attend Mr. Trump’s two April 13 Pittsburgh appearances.

“I was expecting Donald Trump to be orange, but he wasn’t,” joked Jill Cooper, who is pledging to back the District 12 pick. “He was very kind, confident.”

She and other delegates said efforts to entice her vote wouldn’t work in any case. “I don’t want to be wined and dined by you,” said Ms. Cooper. “I want you to wine and dine my district.”

Most delegate candidates say the state’s system for picking delegates should be changed.

“A lot of people who never paid attention to delegates before are paying attention now,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, who says his delegate run is drawing more attention than his House re-election bid. “They don’t like what they see, and I don’t blame them.”

Some favored requiring delegates to follow the popular vote. Others felt the primary ballot should identify delegates by the presidential contenders they favor, as Democrats do.

State rules can be changed. But the party has to have some means of “coming to a consensus,” said District 18’s Al Quaye. “I understand the frustration of voters, but Lincoln didn’t go until the third ballot.”

Tricia Cunningham, a top Trump volunteer, said she hoped Mr. Trump would amass enough delegates to avoid such drama. “I’ve been been put through the wringer by delegates — I’ve been yelled at and cried on,” she said. “I want to see delegates not matter, so everyone can go to Ohio and have a good time.”

Chris Potter: