At least Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about Stella Kozanecki. The 80-year-old retired insurance executive from Mount Vernon, Ill., was elected in the state’s March 15 primary as a pledged delegate to Trump, the front runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Whatever happens at the party convention in Cleveland in July, she plans to stick with her candidate. “The state obligates me to vote for Trump on the first ballot, and after that I am free to change, but I will not change,” she tells TIME days after her selection. “I will not ever switch my vote.”
But not all Trump delegates are as faithful as Kozanecki, who unlike most delegates was directly recruited by Trump’s national campaign advisers. That fact has set off a massive behind-the-scenes scramble, a sort of stealth primary battle, as rival campaigns and Trump’s conservative foes try to fill the convention hall with Republican activists willing to betray Trump after the first ballot. As a result, Trump could see his fortunes fade quickly if he walks into the Cleveland arena with fewer than the required majority of 1,237 delegates. “Our goal is to be every Trump delegate’s second choice,” says Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chairman, who is leading rival Ted Cruz’s nationwide delegate-tracking and recruitment operation.
A second Cruz adviser, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, was even more precise about the skeptics they hope to plant among the front runner’s flock. “There are at least 200 delegates that will move from Trump on the second ballot,” the aide says, predicting that the Texas Senator would be the beneficiary of most of their support.
For millions of Americans who have already voted to make Trump the clear favorite for the nomination–he now leads by more than 2 million votes–this could all come as a nasty shock. But the process at the heart of the national party system can be anything but democratic. Under Republican Party rules, primaries and caucuses determine how most delegates’ votes are counted on the first ballot at the convention, not who the delegates are or their true loyalties. (Democratic Party rules are even less democratic; delegates are not bound on the first ballot, and 700 superdelegates drawn from party insiders get votes as well to possibly skew the outcome.) The fight for who earns a credential to the convention floor is the true invisible primary, and it will take place over the coming three months in hundreds of state party boardrooms and sparsely attended county conventions.
In the end, more than 70% of the delegates in Cleveland will be selected without the direct approval of the campaign they are pledged to support on the first ballot. These same delegates are also free to work against their named candidate in internal party meetings, like that of the crucial Rules Committee, which meets the week before the convention and proposes the regulations governing a contested convention.
Aware of the challenge, the Trump campaign is playing catch-up, forming its own team to identify and select so-called faithful delegates to the convention. “You want loyal people,” Barry Bennett, a senior adviser on Trump’s new delegate-tracking team, tells TIME. “[Our delegates] are going to go and they’re going to wear their Trump uniforms, and they’re going to do everything they can for Donald Trump.”
But at the same time, Trump has been laying the groundwork for a public fight to shame the convention delegates into sticking with the candidate who gets the most primary and caucus votes. “We had a massive field,” Trump said at a press conference in Washington on March 21. “To get 50% in a way is a little bit unfair.”
The odds are now higher than at any point since 1976 that Republicans will face a second ballot at their convention. After Trump’s win in Arizona and Cruz’s victory in Utah on March 22, the businessman must win about 52% of the remaining delegates–a tall order in a three-way race.
Ground zero for the delegate-selection fight will be states like Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses, where Trump came in second with 24% of the caucus-night vote. Under the rules, that will force seven of the state’s 30 delegates to vote for Trump on the first ballot. But if Cruz and rival campaigns have their way, none of the Iowa delegates will be true Trump supporters.
In a sign of Trump’s disorganization, his team told its supporters to stay only through the presidential-preference vote during the Iowa caucuses, which decided how the state’s delegates would be bound, rather than the longer delegate-selection process. When county conventions were held on March 12, it was too late for many Trump supporters to be considered as delegates, since they had failed to volunteer on caucus night or pay a nominal fee. The statewide convention scheduled for mid-May will determine the final delegate slate. “Urgent: Are you a Delegate for Donald Trump?” emailed Tana Goertz, a former Apprentice contestant turned Iowa campaign co-chair for Trump on March 8 in a last-minute effort to fill slots.
In South Carolina, where Trump won all 50 delegates, those selected for Cleveland at the district and state levels must be drawn from the pool of delegates to the state’s GOP convention in May 2015–a list long on party insiders that was set before Trump even declared his candidacy. And in a state where GOP politics is dominated by Trump foes like Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Tim Scott, those insiders don’t like Trump. The Cruz and Kasich campaigns are both working the state to seed the delegate pools in their favor.
In New Hampshire, where campaigns submitted slates of delegates, Trump sought to ensure loyalty by sending campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a longtime resident, as a delegate. But those pledged to other candidates include state party chair Jennifer Horn, a vocal Trump critic who is one of the three delegates pledged to Jeb Bush in the state. (Delegates for Bush and other candidates who’ve withdrawn will likely be released to vote their personal desires on the first ballot.)
Then there are the armies of rival candidates’ delegates, who plan to go to the convention to work against Trump. Pat Brady, the former Illinois GOP chair, was elected in Illinois on the ballot as a pledged delegate to John Kasich. He plans to do everything in his power to block Trump. “There’s no way in hell I’ll ever vote for Donald Trump,” he says. “Not ever.”
Kris Hammond, a delegate elected in the District of Columbia on an anti-Trump platform, said that even if Trump wins the nomination, the fight won’t end there. The ensuing floor protests will be televised for the nation. “We can all show up with anti-Trump paraphernalia,” he tells TIME. “We could walk out.”
This appears in the April 04, 2016 issue of TIME.