With little fanfare, front-runner GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is building a campaign organization in Illinois, aiming to run a full slate of delegates in the March primary.
On Monday, more than 10,000 people packed into the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, eager to see the boisterous billionaire on the stump. Before Trump took to the stage, he quietly met in a smaller room with about 50 or 60 of the people from around the state running to be Trump delegates.
“That was the first meeting he had when he was on the ground in Springfield,” Kent Gray, the Springfield attorney who is leading Trump’s drive in Illinois told me. Gray is one of two paid Trump staffers organizing in the state. After huddling with his slate, Trump gave them hats with his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Trump’s team required tickets for the rally, which was free, but the dividend they provided was a big list of potential supporters with current contact information.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, the gift of Oprah Winfrey headlining giant primary rallies for him in key states was more than just attracting large crowds. Winfrey gave the Obama team a chance to harvest contact info from attendees, crucial to their get-out-the-vote drives.
Gray said he signed up “thousands” of volunteers in Springfield while petition passers outside the convention hall “really knocked it out of the park.”
For all the hoopla of rallies, debates and interviews, the path to actually winning the nomination at the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland comes through the support of delegates, elected in Illinois by primary voters next March. Democrats in Philadelphia next summer also pick their presidential nominee through delegates, though their selection system is different.
There will be 2,470 delegates in Cleveland, with 1,236 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Illinois will send 69 delegates to Cleveland, plus 66 alternates.
As of the beginning of October, Trump, running as an outsider, had no visible campaign in Illinois. That led to some speculation about whether he was going to mount a serious effort to recruit delegates and do the hard work required in Illinois — with very tricky ballot-access rules — to make sure they qualify for the ballot.
“Our primary job at this point is getting delegates and alternates, making sure we have well over the valid signatures [on nominating petitions] . . . and making sure that we are ready to file at 8 a.m. on Jan. 4 of next year, which will absolutely be contrary to the comments of some of my friends and other campaigns,” Gray said.
Politics in Illinois is cutthroat.
In the 2012 Republican Illinois primary, the paperwork to put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his delegates on the ballot was challenged by operatives backing former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. In order to save themselves, Romney’s team raised their own legal objections to Santorum’s filings, forcing a truce between the two camps.
In Illinois, the 69 Republican delegates will be selected in two ways:
• Fifteen delegates will be chosen at a state convention. They will be bound to vote for the winner of the Illinois March presidential preference vote, sometimes called the “beauty contest.”
• Fifty-four delegates will be elected directly in the primary. Each of the 18 Illinois congressional districts will elect three delegates and three alternates. Each delegate runs allied with a presidential candidate.
So in this district proportional system, the outcome could yield three delegates pledged to three different contenders, all from the same district.
Most often the presidential campaigns look to recruit big names the voters will recognize to run for delegate. That’s what the Illinois campaigns of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are doing.
But not Trump’s team.
Said Gray: “I wanted to find people who were excited about supporting Mr. Trump, who are enthusiastic and kind of a different crowd than who usually runs for delegate and alternate.”
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet