The GOP presidential race is turning into a trench warfare fight for every last delegate, and nowhere will that be more true than in Pennsylvania, where the delegates themselves are elected directly by voters in the primary.
That means that Republicans will go to the polls April 26 hoping to decide between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich — but their even bigger decision will be between the likes of Christopher Vogler, Joan Miller and Cody Knotts, three people who are among the 150 or so running for individual delegate slots to the July convention.
Unlike most states, where delegates are assigned to candidates based on how the state votes, Pennsylvania puts most of its power directly into the hands of the delegates. The vast majority of its delegates — 54 of 71 — are directly elected and go to the convention “unbound,” which means they can vote for whomever they want.
Normally that’s not so important, with a clear national winner emerging and all the delegates jumping on board. But this year, with the prospect of a divided convention looming, each of Pennsylvania’s unbound delegates could help tip the scales toward or against front-runner Donald Trump come July.
That makes Mr. Knotts, a filmmaker running for one of the three unbound delegate slots from the state’s 9th Congressional District, a hot commodity — though he says he’s publicly committing to vote for Mr. Trump.
“I am supporting Donald Trump,” he said, adding, “it kind of gets old being told that you are doing it because you are ill informed, ignorant or stupid.”
Mr. Knotts said after he signed up to run as a delegate, Mr. Trump’s campaign sounded him out in January to see where he stood. It was a striking show of organization for a campaign operation many analysts have deemed amateurs in the delegate chase.
“The big question they had way back was ‘how do you feel about Ted Cruz?’” Mr. Knotts said. “It was still early enough that they didn’t know what was going to happen in Iowa. They were prepared that this was a race between Trump and Cruz. That is impressive [that] they had enough foresight that they might need these delegates and had prepared to recruit them.”
The chances for a contested convention are higher than they’ve been in a generation. Mr. Trump has captured 754 of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination, but would need to win about 60 percent of the bound delegates across the remaining contests to guarantee victory on a first ballot.
Should he be short of the 1,237, he will either need to sway unbound delegates such as the dozens from Pennsylvania, or else hope he can win over others’ supporters if the race moves to a second ballot and beyond.
Not all of those running to be delegates in Pennsylvania are as certain as Mr. Knotts about who they’ll support.
Mr. Vogler, running for a slot from the state’s 1st Congressional District, said he had planned to back Sen. Marco Rubio, but now is leaning toward Mr. Kasich, governor of neighboring Ohio.
“My main rationale of who I am going to vote [for] is who I feel is the best candidate to win in the fall,” he said.
Mr. Vogler is virtually assured of being a delegate since he’s one of three people on the ballot for the three delegate slots from his district.
That makes him a good target for the campaigns, but he said he hasn’t heard from any of them yet. He did, however, receive a telephone call from a man urging him to vote for Mr. Trump.
“He was respectful; he was a very nice man,” he said. “I doubt, as we get closer, that the calls will be as nice.”
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist, who is one of about a dozen running for a delegate position in the 4th Congressional District, said the problem for Mr. Trump is that party regulars tend to win the delegate seats. And many of them are like Mr. Vogler, having supported Mr. Rubio and now migrating to Mr. Kasich, he said.
“Most of the — you might call it the ‘party establishment’ — is lining up behind John Kasich at this point, and they will have a lot of influence on the delegation once selected,” Mr. Gerow, who is on the fence about whom he would support if elected as a conventioneer, said.
Mr. Gerow has been a delegate before, and said typically the wooing of delegates happens after they have been elected, but given the unique nature of the 2016 race, the delegate campaigns could happen earlier.
“The difficulty, of course, is if you have a slate of delegates, they are not lined up next to each other on the ballot, and there is no indication of who they support,” he said. “My guess is the Trump people, where they have identified delegates, they are going to be out trying to showcase their candidates.”
Mr. Knotts said if Mr. Trump is to break through against an anti-Trump establishment, he’ll have to invest in promoting the election of delegates who are already committed to voting for him.
“Unless they spend money to support the delegates, they are not going to get them elected against the people who are running,” Mr. Knotts said. “It will be all the people who are handpicked.”
In Mr. Knotts’ case, there are nine candidates running for three delegate seats from his congressional district. One of those is Rep. Bill Shuster, a sitting member of Congress whose name recognition likely makes him a shoo-in — making it an eight-person race for the remaining two slots.
“They have to spend money promoting their delegates because people who are for Trump will go in and support delegates if they know who the people are,” Mr. Knotts said. “The problem is how you inform them of the delegates, and that is a lot harder. That is going to take money.”
Asked to handicap his chances of winning, Mr. Knotts, who wrote and directed “Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies,” which starred late wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, said the prospects are grim.
“My best bet is that there are a lot of wrestling fans in the district,” he joked.
Hope Hicks, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, declined to comment on their preparations.
Other delegate candidates told The Washington Times that if they are elected to fill one of the three delegate slots in the state’s 18 congressional districts, they plan to follow the lead of the voters in that district on the first ballot.
“When I entered I did not enter with a specific candidate in mind, and I think that is appropriate. I think you have to listen to the will of the people,” said Mike Puppio, chairman of the Springfield Republican Party who is running in the 7th Congressional District.
He said it is hard to game out how he would vote if the vote moved to a second ballot or more because there could be so many moving parts.
Joan Miller, also running for delegate in the 7th Congressional District, said she would vote for who she believed is the “most electable” candidate in a general election showdown with the Democratic nominee if it moves to a second ballot.
“It looks like it is Trump, but you never know,” she said.