GOP candidates jockey for delegate ‘free agents’ in Virginia

After Donald Trump’s sweeping wins across five Northeastern states Tuesday, his trailing opponents are redoubling their efforts to keep the GOP front-runner from a delegate majority. In Virginia, Trump may have won the primary, but that was just the first step in selecting the state’s convention delegates. John Yang reports on the politicking at a Republican convention in that key swing state.

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    After Donald Trump swept the primaries in five Northeastern states this week, the front-runner edged even closer to that magic number of delegates we have all heard so much about; 1,237 are needed to secure the GOP nomination.

    His opponents are redoubling their efforts to keep Trump from reaching that number, which would make this the first contested convention in four decades.

    If that happens, it's the delegates, the actual people in those seats at the Cleveland hall, who will play a make-or-break role in selecting the nominee.

    John Yang takes a look at how all this is playing out behind the scenes in a key state, Virginia.


    It's a Friday afternoon in the woods of Southern Virginia. There's a heaping helping of smoked shad, country music, and politics.

    It's the 68th Annual Shad Planking Festival, a Virginia tradition that's part cookout, part political gathering. This year, it's a key stop for Republicans who want to be delegates to the national convention in Cleveland.

  • WOMAN:

    I have been very vocal about my support for Ted Cruz. I believe that he is the clear constitutional conservative.

  • CLAY CHASE, Virginia Delegate Candidate:

    Party unity is critical right now. We need to coalesce behind Mr. Trump and win in November.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: The Virginia one was just a great win.


    Donald Trump won the Virginia primary on March 1, but that was just the first step in selecting the state's convention delegates to the national convention. Winning the primary gave Trump 17 delegate votes, one more than Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz came away with eight delegate votes. John Kasich got five.

    Under state party rules, that's how the Virginia delegation will vote on the first ballot at the Cleveland convention. But — and this is key — if nobody gets that 1,237 on the first ballot, Virginia's delegates, like most of the delegates from the other states, will become free agents, able to vote for whomever they want.

    From gatherings like the Shad Planking to the state party convention this weekend, the campaigns are trying to pack Virginia's delegation with their supporters.

    STEPHEN FARNSWORTH, University of Mary Washington: What you are seeing in Virginia looks a lot like what you are seeing in a number of other states, where the Donald Trump campaign may have won the primary, but when it comes time to go through the integral process of delegate selection, it looks like Ted Cruz is doing a lot better.


    Stephen Farnsworth is a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. He says voting for Trump on a second ballot or a third, or even a fourth would be a tough sell for many Virginia delegates.


    A lot of the truly committed Republicans believe that Donald Trump is not the best standard-bearer for the Republican Party. He is going to have to try to convince them this late in the game that he is, and that's going to be an uphill battle, because a lot of these people are already committed in their own minds, in their own hearts to other candidates.


    Shak Hill is one of those Virginia committed Republicans. He's a Cruz organizer who's been recruiting supporters to run to be delegates at the Cleveland Convention.

  • SHAK HILL, Virginia Co-Chair, Cruz Organizer:

    What we have been doing behind the scenes is finding like-minded teachers and like-minded policemen and business owners to come to the convention and actually participate in the process. And the beauty about this is, we actually started in November trying to identify folks that would end up coming to the convention, and this is going to give Senator Cruz a huge advantage.


    He sees the contest as a heavyweight title fight.


    The first round of that boxing match is getting the delegates, 1,237. So if none of the Republican candidates actually get to that threshold, we are going to have a second ballot. And the second ballot is going to hopefully go towards Senator Ted Cruz.

  • COREY STEWART, Virginia Chair, Trump Campaign:

    We're confident at this point that it's going to be a first ballot victory. We're confident we're going to hit 1,237.


    Corey Stewart is Trump's Virginia chairman.

    The Cruz organization is trying to get as many people in hopes that there will be a second ballot.




    Are they preparing for a war, are they arming for a battle that may not happen, do you think?


    I think Cruz is counting on a lot of people to support him on a second ballot who are not going to go down in flames with him. They're going to want to support the winner, and they're going to support Trump.


    And, of course, there's another man in the race, John Kasich. He's behind in the delegate count, but his top delegate adviser, Charlie Black, is undeterred.

  • CHARLIE BLACK, Advisor, Kasich Campaign:

    We believe, because a lot of those people are party regulars and elected officials, they will go to Kasich, more to Kasich than Cruz, because the big issue to those delegates when they sit down at the convention in Cleveland is: Who can win? Who can beat Hillary Clinton? And John Kasich's been consistently ahead of her in the polls by 10 points.


    Black knows about contested conventions: He was a delegate hunter at the last one in 1976. One of his aides? A 24-year-old John Kasich.


    In both cases you have to learn who the delegates are, communicate with them, talk to them, make friends with them, and try to convince them, in this case, for John Kasich that he's the reform conservative who can win, and ask them to, whether its the second, third, fourth, fifth ballot, to keep him in mind.


    But there is a floor fight in Cleveland, political analyst Farnsworth warns this won't be your grandfather's convention.


    This is completely new.

    I sometimes think that this is a process of sort of like people today trying to understand how to use a telegraph. It is really a technological change. It's really a very different system, the way that these delegates are selected today.


    And if Trump fails to get the nomination on the first ballot, delegates selected at state conventions, like this weekend's in Virginia, could well determine who will become the Republican nominee.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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