Inside Donald Trump's delegate strategy

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump is focusing his efforts in New York ahead of the April 19 primary
  • The campaign abandoned travel to California, Colorado

New York (CNN)Donald Trump is tabling his go-everywhere approach and hunkering down in his home state ahead of the New York primary, as his campaign aims to take a more disciplined approach to the delegate hunt.

A bruising defeat in Wisconsin capped off a tumultuous stretch for Trump, which included comments that managed to offend both supporters and opponents of abortion rights, the arrest of Trump's campaign manager and an internal struggle between top campaign aides.
    "There's definitely a little bit of a downward ebb right now, but we see a big rebound in the coming primaries," said Jesse Benton, chief strategist for the Great America PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC.
    He's eyeing the mid-Atlantic primaries on April 26 as a moment for redemption.
    "Trump is on pace to be the nominee," Benton said. "We think the 26th will go a long way to resetting the narrative."
    The Trump campaign is overhauling its schedule to go all in in the Empire State. Trump abandoned plans to travel west this week for a news conference in California, a rally in Colorado and an appearance at Colorado's state convention where 37 delegates will be selected.
    The change of plans came just as the campaign announced Thursday that Paul Manafort, a veteran GOP hand who recently joined the campaign, is being tasked with an expanded role to "direct the campaign's activities" as it looks to secure the necessary delegates to clinch the nomination.
    "The nomination process has reached a point that requires someone familiar with the complexities involved in the final stages. I am organizing these responsibilities under someone who has done this job successfully in many campaigns," Trump said in a statement, pointing to Manafort's involvement in managing convention activities for Republicans Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole's presidential campaigns.
    Manafort told CNN Friday, "I work directly for the boss."
    "This is an example of Donald Trump managing, and the type of leadership he will bring to the presidency in November," Manafort said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. "He also understood that winning isn't enough, that it's about how you win and how much you win."

    Testing ground

    New York will be the first testing ground for the campaign's new strategic bend.
    There are 95 delegates at stake in the state's April 19 primary, where Trump has a wide lead. He picked up support from 52% of GOP primary voters in New York in a recent Monmouth University poll -- well ahead of John Kasich at 25% and Ted Cruz at 17%.
    But if Trump wants to turn it into a winner-take-all victory -- or at least come close -- his campaign will need to work to win more than 50% statewide as well as in congressional districts. Eighty-one of the state's 95 delegates are bound to the winners of each of New York's 27 congressional districts. Trump will need to win a majority of support in each district -- or keep his opponents from reaching the 20% threshold -- to keep all the delegates to himself.
    "We don't want to let that slip," said Ed Brookover, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. "Staying above 50% is important."
    That's why the campaign on Thursday announced 17 New York campaign co-chairs -- including two congressmen -- spread throughout the state, who will help coordinate the campaign's targeted congressional district efforts and serve as local media surrogates.
    "We're going to get every delegate. Every single delegate," said Carl Paladino, Trump's honorary New York campaign co-chairman. "We've been preparing an army across the state to get the vote out for us and it looks great."
    The recent scheduling changes simply demonstrate "the complete focus we're bringing to winning every delegate in New York state," Paladino said.
    New York City Councilman Joe Borelli of Staten Island said he is helping the campaign secure large venues that can accommodate the scale of political rallies Trump has become accustomed to. The campaign's first New York rally on Wednesday in Long Island drew about 10,000 supporters, according to Nassau County Fire Marshal Scott Tusa.
    Borelli is already spending his time hammering Cruz over his opposition to the reauthorization of the Zadroga Act, a bill aimed at funding the health care costs of 9/11 first responders. That's a step further than Trump went Wednesday, when he knocked Cruz over his "New York values" diss.
    "He might've chosen the right issue in Texas or in other parts of the country, but next week he's in a Republican primary in New York and this is not going to go over well," Borelli said.

    Crisscrossing the country

    Until recently, Trump has preferred to crisscross the country on his private jet and appear in front of as many voters as possible -- regardless of his odds in the upcoming contest. But as the path to reach 1,237 delegates before the Republican convention in Cleveland grows narrower, the campaign is trying to deploy its resources more strategically, which means trade-offs like skipping the upcoming Colorado convention.
    "Maybe they didn't see the advantage of being in Colorado," said Steve House, chairman of the Colorado GOP, who recently met with members of Trump's campaign to discuss their odds in the state.
    He noted that Cruz's plan to appear in person at the convention would like work to his benefit. "If you want to compete in a state you've got to come here," House said.
    Brookover said the campaign was never relying on Colorado delegates in their count to clinch the nomination, but the campaign still plans to have volunteers on the ground there. Meanwhile, the Trump team is also working to ensure their preferred delegates are selected at Michigan's state convention this weekend, as well as trying to select a trio of friendly delegates at a district-level convention in Virginia.
    "Let's make sure that sure that our activities are reflecting our strategy," Brookover said of the campaign's approach.
    That strategy is still to arrive in Cleveland with enough delegates to become the nominee -- and avoid a second ballot.
    "We're preparing for everything," Brookover said. "But our first instinct is we're going to be well past 1,237" by the time Trump arrives in Cleveland.
    He pointed to opportunities in upcoming states, including Maryland, Indiana and Pennsylvania -- where a large swath of the delegates will not be bound to a candidate going into the convention -- as well as California, "the big Kahuna," Brookover said.
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    Trump is sure to face continued attacks from anti-Trump groups in the upcoming contests -- attacks the super PAC supporting him hope to help combat. It's planning to pitch in with positive advertising and grass-roots outreach in states like New York, Delaware, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, Benton said.
    Benton's hoping the campaign will ramp up its efforts to counter negative advertising as well.
    "They've run an unorthodox campaign, but in many ways a brilliant campaign," Benton said. "I'm sure they are smart enough to realize that these ads have had an effect, and they need to be countered."
    Other GOP operatives said Trump would be best served if he embraces the help of seasoned operatives as the convention draws near.
    One senior Republican operative said the challenge now is for Trump to surround himself with handful of experienced operatives that he trusts to make decisions on his behalf.
    "The irony for Trump is no one wanted to work for him who knew how to do anything," the operative said. "Now he's having to retrofit and sort of realize, wait a minute, the quality of operatives I hire actually matters."

    New hires

    For its part, the Trump campaign said Thursday it plans to announce several new hires and promotions in the coming weeks.
    Recent contests have shown Trump has struggled to close the deal with voters in the face of an onslaught of attacks from his rivals as well as the anti-Trump groups. But perhaps the biggest challenge has been the candidate's own unforced errors.
    There are signs Trump may be trying to hone his approach, at least slightly. Trump is working on a series of policy speeches on issues including education and strengthening the military that he's expected to deliver in the coming weeks.
    Sam Nunberg, a former Trump political adviser who was ousted over racially-charged Facebook posts and after internal power struggles with Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager, said he thinks the candidate's small circle of advisers are failing him.
    While Lewandowski has hailed a campaign motto of "Let Trump be Trump," Nunberg said it's time to recalibrate.
    "It's not just, 'Let Trump be Trump.' You have to help Trump be Trump," Nunberg said.