"Choose Cruz!" signs lined U.S. Route 15 and the winding driveway and sidewalks leading to the Radisson conference center in Harrisburg, where Pennsylvania’s premier conservative event was being held.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio were there to speak, trying to win voter support in the state’s April 26 Republican primary.
But Cruz was after something more: delegate support.
He understood that winning the primary’s popular vote means nothing and that gaining the support of each and every delegate means everything.
"We are working every day to expand our team by reaching out to all of the delegates," he told the Tribune-Review before meeting with more than 60 of the 162 people running for 54 delegate slots.
If the Republican presidential nomination goes to an open convention in Cleveland in July, Pennsylvania’s uncommitted delegates will be essential because they can vote any way they wish on the first ballot — and the second, the third and so on.
Ronald Reagan was burned by that quirk in 1976. His primary race with then-President Gerald Ford was so close that Reagan picked Sen. Dick Schweiker, R-Pa., as his running mate long before the convention, believing that would help siphon delegates from Ford.
It didn’t. Those delegates were controlled by Drew Lewis, who held the state delegation for Ford.
Four years later, Lewis orchestrated a strategy that won Reagan a majority of delegates in Pennsylvania’s primary, even though Reagan lost the primary to George H.W. Bush by 100,000 votes.
Cruz knows that winning delegates is the only aspect of the primary that counts, and that 54 unbound delegates on the convention floor could be a powerful game changer in Cleveland.
That is, if he wins them over.
As of today (and in this primary cycle, "today" is always a new story), no one will get 1,237 delegates before the GOP convention. You need that number, and that number alone, to win the nomination. So the campaign with the best delegate strategy will win.
Those are the rules. Those always have been the rules and likely always will be the rules.
This is no conspiracy by some mystical "establishment" to dash Donald Trump’s hopes; had he done the very basic homework Cruz has done, he and his followers — who are promising protests in Cleveland unless they get their way — would understand that.
Cruz’s hard work on delegates might not mean that he wins. But, he insisted, it shows he understands that getting to 1,237 delegates before the convention won’t happen for him, Trump or Kasich: "It is all about the relationship I have with the delegates going into the first or perhaps second ballot."
The delegate process is a byproduct of reforming how party nominees once were chosen by state conventions, a process that paid no attention to the voters’ will.
A century ago, delegates were chosen by party bosses or state officials instead of in primaries; the process shamefully lacked transparency and it included plenty of horse-trading, patronage and free-flowing cash to get the outcomes that party bosses wanted — the complete opposite of today, despite all the cries of "establishment tampering."
The prevalence of primaries came into play in 1912, when two-term president Teddy Roosevelt tried to win the Republican nomination through a series of statewide votes; he lost because he did not secure the support of the party bosses.
Roosevelt angrily went off to form the Bull Moose Party, lost the election, cost William Howard Taft his presidency — and forever changed our nation’s primary system. Disillusioned Americans pushed for reforms and, by the mid-1920s, every state had created a more populist method of picking nominees.
Trump’s supporters relentlessly claim on social media that the political establishment is trying to steal the nomination from their man. They vow to unleash "days of rage" in Cleveland if Republicans do not nominate him as their presidential candidate.
Yet, the rules are the rules.
At least one candidate — Ted Cruz — always understood that being popular isn’t how you win the nomination.
Winning delegates’ hearts and minds is how you do it.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).