Politics & Policy

Trump’s Delegate Operation Prospers in New Jersey

Christie and Trump campaign in Vienna Center, Ohio, (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

When it comes to wrangling individual delegates in preparation for a contested convention, Donald Trump’s campaign has stumbled in state after state.

And then there is New Jersey.

Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement has given Trump an organizational and institutional edge in the Garden State, and New Jersey Republicans expect it to pay big dividends both at the polls on June 7 and at the convention in July. On June 7, Trump and the slate of delegates supporting him will appear in advantaged positions on the ballot in 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. And his slate of delegates is packed with loyal Christie supporters — state chairmen, local elected officials, Christie’s son, and even Christie himself — meaning that at the convention, he will not have to worry too much about those delegates peeling off to support his rivals after the first ballot.

After he endorsed Trump in February, Christie has at times appeared to be ruing that decision. The look on his face as he stood behind Trump at a Super Tuesday press conference drew comparisons to someone heading to the gallows. But in his home state of New Jersey, Christie has been a motivated booster, using his substantial influence within the New Jersey Republican apparatus to shore up Trump’s support.

Christie and his team know the rules in New Jersey, and they’ve used that knowledge and the governor’s organizational clout to help Trump. Bill Palatucci, the New Jersey state committeeman and part of the governor’s political brain trust, says Team Christie put out word to the county GOP chairs that it was the governor’s “friendly request” that they consider following his lead and backing Trump.

“He had a conference call with all the county chairs and we said, ‘You know, if you can see your way to supporting the governor, we’d certainly appreciate it,’” Palatucci tells National Review.

RELATED: Cruz Outmaneuvering Trump in Battle for Rubio Delegates

Palatucci took care to say there wasn’t any arm-twisting or palace intrigue involved.

“Look, he’s been the governor for seven years. Every once in a while the call goes out to say, ‘Hey, we need you to do x, y, z.’ Most of them salute and do that. So we made it clear what we wanted,” he said.

In 13 of the 21 counties, Trump secured the “county line,” which means his name and those of the delegate candidates backing him will appear in the same line as all the other candidates endorsed by the county party. That line gets a prime ballot spot — either the top row or the first column, depending on how the county orients its ballots.

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Union County is the one place that awards a county line where Trump did not win it. In that county, John Kasich won the county line. Kasich has a personal connection to the area: He was a close friend of the late congressman Bob Franks, a leader in the New Jersey GOP who represented that area. Kasich won the county convention in late March, affording him the county line (which in Union County is a column). But Glenn Mortimer, the chairman of the Union County GOP will be on the ballot as a delegate for Trump in the seventh congressional district.

In counties that, like Union, held conventions to determine their endorsement, Christie and his team could exert little influence. But, says Palatucci, they made sure that the Trump campaign was aware of the dates and deadlines and what they needed to do to be successful. “We told the Trump guys, ‘Hey, you have to do this. We can’t do this. You have to get involved and go to these meetings and you’ve got to have speakers.”

An e-mail to Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks went unanswered, as did calls and a text to Trump’s New Jersey state director, Katie Martinez.

#share#Every county has its own process for determining its endorsements — if it makes them. In Ocean County, Chairman George Gilmore (who is on the slate of Trump’s statewide delegates) explains that Trump got the county line there because he won a vote open to all of the county-committee members. In Camden County, Chairman Tom Booth says he made the decision with other members of the executive committee of the county party, following which he held a conference call to get input from the municipal chairs. The Burlington County GOP determined that Trump would get the county line on a conference call with municipal chairs, says Chairman Bill Layton — a Trump delegate.

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Somerset County chairman Al Gaburo went to great lengths to make sure he was making the right choice: First, there was a secret ballot of the municipal chairs, which Trump won. Then, they held a secret ballot at the county convention, and Trump won that too. And then, just to be sure, Gaburo says he commissioned a poll of registered Republicans in his county to make sure the rank and file was on the same page. When Trump won that too, Gaburo figured it was safe to make the endorsement. Gaburo is also a Trump delegate.

In other places, Trump just got lucky. Sussex County, one of the most Republican counties in the state, does not afford a county line, and determines ballot placement by a blind drawing conducted by the county clerk. Trump, says Sussex County GOP chairman Jerry Scanlan, was the first draw, earning him the first spot on the ballot. Scanlan himself will be on the ballot as an alternate delegate for Trump in his congressional district.

If the Cruz and Kasich teams woo delegates for a second ballot, they may not have much luck in New Jersey.

National Review spoke with nearly half the GOP county chairmen in New Jersey, all of whom said Christie had influenced their decision. Christie is the leader of the New Jersey Republican party, and state Republicans say that has bred loyalty. “He took us out of the hinterlands of not having the governorship for eight years,” says Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County GOP. Trump will have the county line in Atlantic County, having won the county convention, and Davis will be on the ballot as an alternate delegate for Trump.

“Once the governor made the decision to go in the direction that he’s going, it was my first instinct to go that way,” says Douglas Steinhardt, chairman of the Warren County GOP, who is backing Trump. The county party itself has not officially endorsed, but Steinhardt is personally supporting Trump, and Trump will have the county line.

RELATED: Cruz’s Full-Court Press at the RNC

“[Christie] ran for president, so he has better insight into who the best candidate for president is than certainly I do or probably anybody else in New Jersey, for that matter,” says Camden County GOP chairman Tom Booth. “And so I trust that his endorsement for Donald Trump for president came after careful consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of all the other candidates.” Trump will have the county line in Camden County. The decision to endorse him, Booth says, was made unanimously by the members of the county executive committee, and was vetted by municipal chairs on a conference call.

Scanlan says there was no persuasion from the Christie campaign. “He didn’t know. He didn’t tell me what to do. I didn’t call and ask him what to do. But I knew what he did,” he says.

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“The governor’s done a really good job of making sure that we all understand how important for the state and the country” it is to support Trump, says Bill Layton, the Burlington County GOP chairman. Trump will have the county line in Burlington, and Layton is one of the Trump-delegate candidates on that line.

“The governor’s been very active in making sure the organizations support Donald,” says Layton, who says that Christie’s team, including Palatucci, ”have been very great in working with us all in making sure we’re on the same team.” Layton says there have been “a lot of phone calls and heads-up on different things, and asking us for the support.”

#related#The county line in several counties will be helpful for Trump; as the last few weeks have demonstrated, the process by which delegates are selected and bound to a candidate is not well understood by many voters. As a result, having yourself and your delegate candidates in the most visible spot on the ballot can only help a candidate. New Jersey Republicans say the benefits of having the county line are big. But Gaburo cautions that in a presidential year, they might not mean as much as in another year. “Presidential years are probably the one year with . . . people having their mind made up who they’re going to vote for and looking for that candidate,” he says.

Still, the benefits to Trump at a convention could be huge. He is likely to win the popular vote in New Jersey: A Rutgers-Eagleton poll from earlier this month found him leading with 52 percent. Having the governor’s support, and a slate of delegates loyal to the governor, will likely prevent the Cruz and Kasich teams from poaching those delegates if the nomination process goes to later ballots at the convention. 

“We know how to do it,” says Palatucci. “We took care of business on April 4, and now it’s all over but the shouting.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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