"Wronged" Trump May Be Seeking an Escape Route

"Wronged" Trump May Be Seeking an Escape Route
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After finding himself outmaneuvered on the ground in idiosyncratic but critical state contests, Donald Trump is attempting to turn his campaign shortcomings into a strategic advantage. 

The GOP front-runner is blaming the rules of the game, arguing that delegate losses in Colorado recently are illustrative of a “rigged” system that moves power away from voters and toward party operatives. Never mind the fact that the rules, most of them determined by state Republican parties, have been in place for some time. In an election year without a consensus candidate, the rules have played an outsized role, and thus veteran and new voters alike have been exposed to the ugly innards of arcane processes.

And that just so happens to match Trump’s overarching message against status quo and establishment politics. “Let me ask America a question: How has the ‘system’ been working out for you and your family?” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. 

Even the businessman’s opponents agree that turning his failure to understand the process into an asset is a politically savvy, if hastily conceived, strategy that may help him galvanize supporters ahead of several important contests in the Northeast, which could propel Trump to the nomination after all. The tactical shift in tone also provides him with options, including a possible escape route from humiliation. If he falls short of the 1,237 requisite delegates, and can’t use this message to woo more his way before or at the convention, Trump can tell his supporters that the party establishment wronged him.  

“If you're a Trump supporter, the ‘we were done wrong’ theme is good for them,” says Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist who has advised several presidential campaigns. However, “it is little ironic for Trump to be doing this because he is a guy who knows his way around a lawyer and a lawsuit.” 

While it likely resonates with supporters, Trump's rage against the Republican system and the party he wants to represent could also come back to bite him. He is still a long way from securing the nomination on the first ballot. His campaign will need to court additional delegates, and most of them are party activists and leaders. And, if he does in fact become the nominee, he will need the RNC and its resources to compete in what will be a massively expensive, data-driven general election.

“He’s going to need these very same people he is bashing to immediately help him organize a general election offensive across the country because he has not set up an effective infrastructure,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told RCP. “This is like a general severely admonishing his own special forces before ordering them to go into battle.  Trump runs the risk of demoralizing grassroots party organizers when he is going to need every asset to help him beat the Democratic nominee.”

Trump seems to be acknowledging that reality. The campaign gathered its few Capitol Hill supporters in Washington for a strategy session last week. He hired former RNC political director Rick Wiley, the manager for Scott Walker’s failed presidential campaign, to run party outreach efforts. This comes after giving his delegate director, Paul Manafort, greater influence in the campaign. The Journal editorial felt much more thought out and strategic than Trump’s typically off-the-cuff speeches, and seemed to be delivered in an adviser’s voice. He focused his ire about the rules more toward rival Ted Cruz and less toward the GOP.

“For a man who styles himself as a warrior against the establishment (you wouldn’t know it from his list of donors and endorsers), you’d think he would be demanding a vote for Coloradans. Instead, Mr. Cruz is celebrating their disenfranchisement,” he wrote. “My campaign strategy is to win with the voters. Ted Cruz’s campaign strategy is to win despite them.”

Trump then gave a nod of sorts to the RNC, pledging to “work closely with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and top GOP officials to reform our election policies. Together, we will restore the faith—and the franchise—of the American people.”

Both Cruz and GOP officials have fought back against Trump’s attacks on the party’s varying rules regarding primaries, caucuses and state conventions. 

“It ain’t rocket science,” Cruz said Friday during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. 

"The Constitution gives this authority to the states, that's the way it's been the entire history of the country,” he said. “If anyone is running an effective and competent presidential campaign, they ought to be able to figure out how to go and win an election.”

The RNC, which has been reluctant to weigh in on Trump and his various attacks throughout the campaign cycle, has grown visibly tired of the front-runner’s complaints. 

“The rules surrounding the delegate selection have been clearly laid out in every state and territory and while each state is different, each process is easy to understand for those willing to learn it,” wrote RNC Chief Strategist Sean Spicer in a memo published in response to Trump’s op-ed. 

“The system has been around for a long time,” Chairman Reince Priebus told ABC News. “If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, I think it’s good enough for whoever our nominee is going to be.”

Trump’s focus on the process comes as he is still leading the delegate count, and when the primary map is again turning in his favor. Anti-Trump forces that helped propel Cruz in Wisconsin earlier this month have virtually conceded New York’s primary on Tuesday to the real estate mogul. The state awards most of it delegates by congressional district, and both Cruz and Kasich have targeted pockets where they can pick off delegates. But polling shows Trump well positioned in most areas of the state.

Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and Rhode Island also looking promising for Trump in the coming weeks, providing him with opportunities to again reset the trajectory of the race.

Cruz’s campaign has proven to be the best organized when it comes to hunting delegates, and hopes to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination outright. The campaign sees an opportunity to secure the nomination in a contested convention, and has already begun to win over delegates bound to Trump on the first ballot. 

During his interview with Hannity, Cruz pitched himself to voters and delegates who have yet to weigh in. 

“I love the Trump supporters. I understand why they're supporting Donald Trump. They're angry with Washington,” he said. “We have got to unify the party to win.”

Even some of Trump’s supporters agree. The New York Post endorsed him on Friday, ahead of the primary there. But it also issued a directive. “Should he win the nomination, we expect Trump to pivot — not just on the issues, but in his manner,” the editorial read. “The post-pivot Trump needs to be more presidential: better informed on policy, more self-disciplined and less thin-skinned.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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