Donald Trump, Losing Ground, Tries to Blame the System

onald J. Trump and his allies are engaged in an aggressive effort to undermine the Republican nominating process by framing it as rigged and corrupt, hoping to compensate for organizational deficiencies that have left Mr. Trump with an increasingly precarious path to the nomination.

Their message: The election is being stolen from him.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump berated the politicians he said were trying to stop his nomination and denounced the Republican Party, which he cast as complicit in the theft.

“Our Republican system is absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal,” he said, accusing party leaders of maneuvering to cut his supporters out of the process. “They wanted to keep people out. This is a dirty trick.”

His charges built on comments over the last several days by associates, senior advisers and Mr. Trump himself, seeking to cast a shadow of illegitimacy over the local and state contests to select delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

By blaming the process rather than his own inadequacies as a manager, Mr. Trump is trying to shift focus after Senator Ted Cruz of Texas outmaneuvered him in delegate contests in states like Colorado, North Dakota and Iowa, losses that could end up denying Mr. Trump the nomination.

The new approach is a tacit admission that Mr. Trump’s campaign, which has been so reliant on national news coverage and mass communication via Twitter, has not been able to compete in the often intimate and personal game that is delegate courtship.

His effort to sow doubt about the system plays into the suspicions and anxieties that many of his most ardent backers have about a political process they believe has intentionally disenfranchised them. And it allows Mr. Trump to divert attention from his recent losses in delegate races that are occurring all over the country.

Mr. Trump has a pattern of claiming fraud when an election does not go his way. And his critics say this kind of misdirection is his specialty.

“If Trump can’t win something, he’ll always say it’s someone else’s fault,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who has advised several presidential candidates, most recently Mitt Romney in 2012. “Donald Trump is a place you go to settle scores,” he added, noting Mr. Trump’s tendency to play on grievances, whether political, economic or racial.

“And that’s what he’s selling. ‘You’ve been cheated here, you’ve been cheated there,’ ” Mr. Stevens said. “ ‘I’ll get yours.’ ”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Trump appeared to acknowledge as much. “Don’t forget, I only complain about the ones where we have difficulty,” he said.

After losing the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Trump insisted that Mr. Cruz had prevailed by duping Ben Carson supporters into voting for him after spreading a false rumor that Mr. Carson was dropping out of the race. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter at the time.

Mr. Trump’s complaints also reflect the difficult math he seems likely to face at the convention. Each delegate denied pushes him further away from winning the nomination on the first ballot, after which most delegates would be free to vote for someone else. And after the most recent rounds of voting, Mr. Cruz is poised to have many loyal supporters who would stand with him on a second ballot or beyond.

By its own admission, the Trump campaign has fallen perilously behind in the delegate effort, narrowing Mr. Trump’s road to the nomination with each contest.

The outlook in the coming weeks is not much more favorable. Even if Mr. Trump prevails in high-profile battles like next week’s New York primary, there are growing signs that he is not well equipped to succeed in the lower-profile skirmishes for delegates.

There, Mr. Cruz has an advantage. His campaign recently hired Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative former attorney general of Virginia and a veteran of the state’s internecine Republican battles, to oversee its effort to send pro-Cruz delegates to Cleveland.

The process for choosing delegates can be convoluted and arcane. Even if one candidate wins a state, the delegates who are supposed to vote for him at the convention might privately support one of his opponents, and could do so formally if the nomination goes beyond a first ballot. In some states, like Colorado, delegates selected at a district caucus then vote for separate delegates to the national convention. Because the approach varies by state, campaigns must be well versed in each set of rules.

In an interview, Mr. Cuccinelli noted that 28 states or districts will select delegates this weekend. “We’ll have them all covered,” he said by phone from the Cruz campaign’s Houston headquarters, where he now spends much of his time.

Mr. Cuccinelli said he had only recently detected evidence that Mr. Trump’s staff was engaged in the shadow campaign to elect favorable delegates at state and local conventions.

“We are very blessed that our opponent had no idea what he was doing on this until about a month ago,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “A media-only campaign has its advantages, but it also has its very severe disadvantages.” Mr. Trump’s newly hired chief delegate strategist, Paul J. Manafort, did not respond to an interview request.

By taking the battle for delegate selection seriously only at this relatively late date, Mr. Trump may have crippled his hopes to win a multiballot convention. That is because in many states, the deadline for individuals to run for delegate has already come and gone.

In 10 of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, for example, the deadline has passed to run for one of the three delegate slots available to each district. And as the elections in which those 33 delegates will be chosen unfold in the coming weeks, the Cruz campaign plans to have a presence.

Arkansas is another case in point. The deadline to apply to be a candidate for delegate was in February. And since the list of applicants became available early last month, Cruz volunteers in each of the state’s 75 counties have been vetting it for people they believe will be most loyal to him at the convention. Arkansas delegates are required to vote for the candidate they are pledged to based on primary results for only one ballot. After that, it is their choice.

“If Senator Cruz is going to be president, then we need to make sure we have people who are loyal to Ted Cruz who are going to Cleveland as delegates,” said Bob Ballinger, a Republican state representative and the Cruz campaign’s Arkansas chairman. The goal, Mr. Ballinger added, is to find people “who are willing to go down and will stick with him through a second or third vote if it comes down to that.”

This effort has already dealt Mr. Trump serious setbacks. In Colorado on Saturday, Mr. Cruz’s organizational muscle helped him capture all 34 delegates at stake.

And in Iowa, which also chose delegates over the weekend, Mr. Cruz’s success could go a long way in helping him if the convention gets to a second ballot. Though Iowa binds its delegates on the first ballot for candidates based on the proportion of the vote they received in the statewide caucuses Feb. 2, they are free to vote as they please after that.

Cruz supporters in Iowa were elected to 11 of the 12 delegate slots that were filled over the weekend and secured five of eight spots on a commission that will nominate another delegate slate.

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said it was clear that the Cruz campaign was outworking its rivals. “Organization still matters,” he said.

Credit:New York Times