Just before the polls closed on the day of the New York primary, Ted Cruz wasn’t in Manhattan or Buffalo or Albany ... or anywhere else in the state.
He had already moved on to Philadelphia, campaigning for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary.
Cruz’s move speaks to just how important Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary has become in this atypical election. No candidate is likely to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the party’s presidential nomination.
And Pennsylvania has a unique primary setup on the GOP side.
Only 17 of the state’s 71 delegates go to the statewide winner.
The rest are “unbound,” which means they are free to support anyone they want at the Republican National Convention, which takes place July 18 to 21 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Those unbound delegates will be elected by locality in Tuesday’s primary. The presidential contenders will begin wooing them immediately.
This means a lot of uncertainty. A candidate could win the state but not get the majority of delegate votes at the convention.
“Pennsylvania is a really funny state in terms of how the delegates are allocated,” says Sarah Niebler, assistant professor in the department of political science at Dickinson College.
“Some of those delegates will make their intentions clear, that they plan to vote for the statewide winner. But some (candidates for delegate) have also made their intent clear that no matter what happens, if Donald Trump wins the state, they’re voting for Cruz. It’s a mishmash, and we’ll have to wait and see who those 54 delegates are to get a sense of what impact those delegates will have.”
At issue, of course, is the fact that many of the GOP bigwigs don’t want Trump to win the nomination. There’s been a well-documented pushback against the billionaire front-runner, who is not a career politician and rubs many in the party the wrong way with his blunt talk and flouting of tradition.
“Some see Trump as just a total disaster up and down the ticket. They are afraid that if Trump wins, he could take the party deep into the weeds and who knows when it would come out,” says Dr. Michael Young, former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University. “There’s tremendous motivation to stop him, and the question is how to do it.”
The answer, many believe, is to stop him at the convention from getting the votes he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot.
The #NeverTrump movement, conceived by those within the Republican party to block a Trump nomination, could get a great boost from unbound delegates from Pennsylvania voting for Cruz or the third remaining Republican candidate, John Kasich.
Currently Trump has 845 delegates, about three-quarters of those needed to win. Cruz trails with 559, and Kasich is well behind with 147.
Mathematically, it’s impossible for Cruz and Kasich to get to 1,200 even if they sweep the remaining primaries. Trump can call on the argument that, as the leading vote-getter, he’s the choice of the people and should get the nomination.
But the long and short of it is, the Pennsylvania primary becomes more about the candidates courting the delegates than the actual voters.
Niebler says Republican voters’ most important decision on Tuesday may not be what presidential candidate to vote for but which delegate.
“Do research to find out what folks running for delegate plan to do when get to the convention, and make an educated decision that way,” she says.
If Pennsylvania does become a key decision maker at the RNC, it won’t be the first time.
“What someone has to do in Pa. is step up and be a kingmaker,” Young says. “That’s a role that Pa. has played in nominating conventions from the Civil War to the ‘30s, but Pennsylvania hasn’t played that role for a long time. The state is set for that to evolve.”
The last time the RNC saw a contest this close was in 1976, when then-incumbent Gerald Ford held a slight edge over challenger Ronald Reagan among delegates.
Reagan picked Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate in a bid to woo away delegates, but Ford’s lead held and he was nominated for president without any major showdown.
Pennsylvania’s key role in this year’s nominating process is facilitated by the fact that the primary is held so late. A number of other states have moved up their primaries in the past decade to ensure they help play a role in the presidential selection process, and indeed there’s been legislation introduced in Pennsylvania to do the same, but it has never passed.
In past years, the nomination has been all but wrapped up by the time Pennsylvania votes. But when the nominating process draws out like this, Pennsylvania gets outsized influence.
“The fact that the election is so late made Pennsylvania not matter more than matter in the past,” says Niebler. “This year it hit it right. While this is not unheard of, it’s certainly a rarity.”
As for who will win the state, Young says Trump should build on his momentum from the win in New York and take Pennsylvania with ease.
He predicts Kasich, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, will also make a decent showing.
“He fits well with the Republicans in the southeast, where it’s more Republican and moderate,” Young says. “That will help him, particularly if turnout is reasonably high.”
Cruz, Young says, may finish third despite his efforts in the state.