Top aides spent the week gingerly courting Republican insiders at a seaside resort in Florida, but front-runner Donald Trump was busy railing against them.
While it may seem counterproductive, Trump’s foot-stomping has served as a rallying cry to boost voter turnout and allowed him to continue to appeal to voters who feel disenfranchised. The “rigged” system also is a convenient scapegoat, taking the blame for any future potential losses and lost delegates instead of an outmaneuvered campaign.
“The system is all rigged,” Trump told supporters at a rally Friday at the Delaware State Fairgrounds ahead of the Republican primary. “That’s why we have to win big. That’s why on Tuesday, everyone has to go out and vote.”
Trump has won more states than his rivals, yet his team has been badly outplayed by Ted Cruz in the intricate game of ensuring that supportive delegates make it to the Republican convention in July in Cleveland.
Pennsylvania, one of five states voting Tuesday, has an especially confusing delegate system. While the winner of its primary will emerge with 17 delegates, the vast majority of delegates — 54 — are unbound and can vote for whomever they choose. The ballot will feature 162 potential delegates, but it will offer no information about whom they support. That means voters who haven’t consulted with the campaigns about their rosters will be voting blind.
Trump has yet to specifically target Pennsylvania’s process, but his argument would only grow stronger if he were to win the majority of votes in the state — opinion surveys show him with a significant lead — yet emerge with fewer delegates than Cruz.
Trump has been relentless in his criticism of the delegate system, slamming party “bosses” and calling out the Republican National Committee and its chairman, Reince Priebus. On Friday, Trump compared himself to a prize fighter competing in rival territory.
“The fighters have a great expression. When you have a champ that goes into a big territory but it’s unfriendly; it’s home of the other fighter. But the good ones go, ‘No, no, I’m not worried,'” he said. “‘Because if I knock him out there’s nothing the judges can do. Right? What we have to do is knock them out with the volume of our votes.”
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Paul Manafort, a senior Trump aide, brushed off the idea that the candidate’s rhetoric was making it more difficult to build bridges with party leaders.
“What he’s slamming is the system. He’s saying the system is rigged. And the system is rigged. It’s rigged in all 50 states where they have different rules and that don’t take into account modern presidential campaigns,” he said.
Manafort added that Trump wanted to work with Priebus to change the system for the next election. “That’s where things are getting confused,” he said. “He’s saying we’ve got to change rules so the next time, when people vote, their vote counts.”
Nonetheless, frustration with Trump’s attacks on the RNC and the integrity of the nomination process were widespread in Florida, even as Trump’s team was trying to make amends.
In a private meeting Thursday with party officials, Manafort tried to assure them that Trump was on their side and prepared to fundraise for the party. He stressed that the candidate had had some “very good” conversations with Priebus and said the campaign hoped to work closely with state party leaders to build its general election campaign.
On the Democratic side Friday, Bernie Sanders sent mixed signals on whether he will persist in his pointed critique of Hillary Clinton’s record as some Democrats urge the party to coalesce around the former secretary of state.
Sanders largely gave her a pass, except by implication, as he denounced the thinking behind the Iraq war, which she supported, and warned of the risks of pushing regime change, as he addressed and took questions from a crowd of some 2,000 in a gym, with hundreds more in an overflow room.
Clinton has been more muted in her assessment of Sanders since she won a convincing victory in her home state of New York. She briefly mentioned his handling of gun control at an event Friday in Pennsylvania, as she did a day earlier with Connecticut family members of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.
“I voted against it,” she said of a bill to protect gun-makers from legal liability. “My opponent, Senator Sanders voted for it.” She said the bill “has given a really free hand to gunmakers and sellers.” But on both occasions she resisted wading deeply into his record.