How Donald Trump can win the inside delegate game in New York

Story highlights

  • The New York GOP undertook an overhaul of its primary rules before this election cycle
  • Unlike other states where he says the process is "rigged," Trump can likely do well with the state party and delegate selection here

(CNN)When New York voters head to the polls in the Republican primary on Tuesday, they will be deciding how the state's 95 delegates vote on the first ballot.

But the actual men and women who will cast those ballots at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this July will be chosen in a separate, new process for the New York GOP. It's the same type of inside baseball Donald Trump is railing against in other states, calling it "rigged," as he's watched Ted Cruz supporters position themselves for success if the convention goes multiple ballots.
    In New York, however, Trump has the advantage as he's poised for a resounding victory Tuesday night. He enjoys more GOP party support there than possibly any other state operation, and New York could prove to be a better scenario from Trump than states like North Dakota and Colorado where his campaign has been out-maneuvered for delegates by Ted Cruz's operation.
    "There's a lot of support here for Donald Trump," said Nicholas Langworthy, Erie County GOP chairman and a Trump campaign state co-chairman. "I look back to (delegate selection in) Colorado, and I just think what they did is disgraceful because there was no will of the voter paid attention to. ... I think our rules allow us to take into account the will of the voters and also support those who work hard, and deliver most of the support for Donald Trump."
    The New York state Republican Party overhauled its primary rules before this election cycle, moving the date up on the calendar in an effort to make the state more appealing to candidates criss-crossing the country. The payoff has been even more than they could have hoped, with New York having its own two weeks in the spotlight.
    The party also revamped the way it picks the men and women who will serve as delegates, putting more control in the hands of the state party and less in the winning campaigns. Previously, candidates submitted hand-picked slates of delegates to the party. This year, the roughly 450 members of the GOP State Committee will be selecting the individuals in phases through the end of May. Setups geared towards party insiders, have benefited Cruz in states around the country and become a flashpoint in the election, with Trump complaining that Cruz is stealing delegates in states like Colorado and North Dakota.
    While Trump is the leader in pledged delegates, many of the individual men and women who are bound to vote for him on one or two ballots may switch loyalty once they are allowed to by rule at a contested convention.
    "The system is rigged," Trump said in Syracuse over the weekend. "They gotta do something about it. The Republican National Committee better get going because I'll tell you what, you're gonna have a rough time at that convention in July ... because people want to vote and the people wanna be represented properly."
    Cruz's campaign chairman Chad Sweet said if Trump does as well as predicted in his home state, he'll be watching to see if Trump changes his tune.
    "What will be fascinating to see is if he disavows the rules with the same ferocity when he wins as he does when he loses," Sweet said. "He has benefited in fact from many of the rules that have been in place, like in New York where they will have the opportunity to potentially influence the delegate selection, even for some of the Cruz or Kasich delegates."
    Trump's campaign did not respond for this story.
    New York party leaders say the change was made to give power to the grass-roots. In past years, they said, candidates would pick family members or campaign loyalists over dedicated GOP activists, irking the rank and file of the New York GOP.
    "You want to reward the people who have been part of the county organizations, and all the county chairs and committeemen understand the purpose of the conventions is to reward the hard workers in the party, the people who carry the petitions, who work day in and day out, to give them the honor of being a delegate to the convention," said Edward Cox, the state party chairman and a longtime New York GOP operative.
    Cox recalled his own work for John McCain campaign in 2008, when the state party largely backed Rudy Giuliani but the delegates who went to the convention were the McCain loyalists.
    But it was 2012 that provided the real impetus for the change -- when frustration over the Mitt Romney campaign picking family members and chosen insiders as delegates came to blows between a Romney campaign operative from New York and a New York county chairman.
    "I think in the past we had seen the presidential candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, was rather abusive to the organization when he selected his delegates," Langworthy said. "So what the mission was before it looked like we were going to have this potentially contested convention was to make sure the people in our party day in and day out, they are the people representing the party when it comes to go to the convention."
    Of New York's 95 delegates to the national convention, 81 will be chosen in groups of three by congressional district. Each district will have a mini convention before the end of May at which the state committeemen and women elected last September by state assembly district will vote. Votes will be weighted at the congressional district level by how much of the state assembly district lies within each congressional district.
    The state chairman and national committee members are also delegates. The remaining at-large delegates will be chosen by the full state committee at the end of next month. Though no one besides the state committee will get a vote, the party expects to include the input of county chairmen and campaign operatives.
    Trump's campaign boasts the support of 33 county chairmen out of 62 in the state, giving him a broad base of support in a majority of the state. And he is leading in most polls by more than 50% -- the threshold needed to automatically win all of the state's at-large delegates and the mark he will have to hit in each congressional district to win all of those delegates.
    "The decision-making process doesn't end on April 19 in the primary -- there's another component in delegation selection and that's something the campaign will have to be prepared for and something all the leaders of this campaign in the state will have to work on," Langworthy said.
    But there are also areas of the state that are less supportive of him, where his opponents could peel off delegates both on the ballot and in terms of loyalty.
    Ray Scollin is the chairman of the Franklin County GOP, which is in the congressional district represented by moderate Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik. She faced calls for a primary challenger by Trump's state honorary Co-Chairman Carl Paladino for not publicly endorsing Trump, which put off county chairs in the district and outside it.
    Scollin endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary before he dropped out, and now says he is running uncommitted to be a delegate.
    He predicted the party will look to pick delegates who will vote smartly based on how the convention plays out, rather than hand-pick them based on candidate support. And that leaves room for loyalty to shift.
    "I don't think (Trump) has an advantage or a disadvantage, and I'm not being coy," Scollin said. "We're going to be looking for individuals who will fill the role and obviously comply with voting. But if people voted the same way on every ballot (in a contested convention), we'd never be able to reach a nomination, so there has to be movement somewhere. ... I think it all depends on how the convention begins to unfold."