Can the Republican nomination be bought?

Updated

As Republicans face the very real possibility of a contested convention this summer, it’s hard not to wonder: can a candidate actually buy the GOP nomination by handing out gifts, cash and other swag to sway the delegates? 

Donald Trump thinks so. The billionaire GOP front-runner, who has won most of the party’s primaries and caucuses but has been crushed by Ted Cruz in a series of state party conventions, has suggested his rivals will employ various “shenanigans” — including vote buying — to rob him of the delegates needed to win the nomination.

“They offer [delegates] trips, they offer [them] all sorts of things, and you’re allowed to do that,” Trump complained Monday after his campaign’s effort to win unbound delegates failed spectacularly in Colorado last weekend. “You can buy all these votes.”

It doesn’t quite work that way. But Trump is correct that it’s technically legal to use gifts to woo delegates, since the rules surrounding 2016’s unusual delegate hunt are remarkably lax.

The stakes of the hunt are sky-high. If Trump fails to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot, most delegates will then be unbound, free to vote for any candidate they choose.

The only thing a candidate can’t do, according to Federal Election Commission rules, is allocate campaign money for a delegates’ personal use. That means a campaign can’t pay for something a delegate would normally buy, like household groceries. A campaign can, however,  take a delegate or two or four out to dinner or on a ritzy trip.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/11/16, 10:47 PM ET

Gift rules face test in GOP delegate fight

Matea Gold, political reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Steve Kornacki about just how far Republican campaigns can go to attract the support of convention delegates.

Within those bounds, campaigns can offer up pricey perks and priceless invitations. In 1976, President Gerald Ford offered delegates rides on Air Force One and visits to the White House as his team worked to battle then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who hoped to wrest the Republican nomination from Ford on the convention floor. 

Are any of 2016’s contenders actually offering delegates extravagant perks? It depends on how you interpret Trump’s insinuations of “all sorts of things.”

Jason Osborne, a strategist who is unaffiliated after working for Ben Carson’s campaign, said dinners are a routine tactic used by delegate hunters — and something the campaigns have been doing for months already. 

Traveling to various places to woo delegates Osborne said, “I hosted a dinner that was paid for. Trump did the same. Cruz’s guy…did the same.”

Plane tickets are another permissible delegate perk. In 2012, Ron Paul’s presidential campaign raised funds to pay for some delegates’ travel expenses to the Republican convention that year in an attempt to challenge presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

RELATED: Cruz rejects Trump’s claims of ‘rigged’ delegate system

Osborne said it’s less about changing a delegate’s opinion and more about locking down a candidate’s own supporters.

“You get the vote commitment in the beginning, but you want to keep them in the loop. Doing these kind of things increases their intensity” and investment in the campaign for both supporters and those considering supporting the candidate, Osborne said.

Still, some unbound delegates — those free to vote as they please on the first ballot, a status that makes them most likely to be wooed first  — insist plane tickets and expensive dinners won’t sway their choice. 

One of those, North Dakota state Sen. Jessica Unruh, said she’ll make up her mind based on what’s best for her state, and won’t accept any gifts or money to maintain the appearance of objectivity.

I will not be participating in any of that, I will pay my own way and make sure my own expenses are paid appropriately,” she told MSNBC.

But even as delegates insist they won’t base their decision on gifts, they still marvel at the attention they’re getting. Carly Fiorina, a high profile Cruz surrogate, phoned Unruh earlier this month and gave Unruh her phone number in case she had questions ahead of the July convention. Another North Dakota state senator, Dick Dever, said he received a call from Cruz himself on his way home from the Fargo convention.

“It’s about 190 miles from Fargo to Bismarck, and it was an out of state number. I asked my wife if I should answer. I did and it was Ted Cruz,” he told MSNBC. He and Cruz chatted for nearly half an hour about politics. “I did not commit to him and he did not ask me to. My wife Pam and I were both kinda impressed by that,” Dever said. 

Dever said he didn’t think any delegate should be swayed by freebies. 

“If you can’t drink their booze and eat their food and then vote against them in the morning, you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s the future of our country – it shouldn’t be decided on over a steak dinner.”

Delegate hunting adviser Charlie Black said John Kasich’s campaign team said their focus would be pitching their candidate’s electability and not buying expensive meals for them. Cruz’s team declined to discuss strategy at all, while Trump’s team insists they can make it to 1237 before the convention.

RELATED: Inside Trump’s backroom meetings to woo delegates

But delegate hunters and advisers acknowledge that the lack of limits is bound to result in some interesting swag.

“You can give people a free trip to the convention or a free trip to Mar-a-Lago or you can take them to dinner at the 21 Club,” Republican strategist Charlie Black said.

But Black, who ran the delegate hunting operation for Reagan in 1976 and is now advising Kasich’s team, argued it didn’t make much of a difference. 

“The number of delegates who liked Reagan but decided to go for Ford because they were bought off was half a dozen or less,” he told MSNBC. “I was doing the count.”

Donald Trump, John Kasich and Ted Cruz

Can the Republican nomination be bought?

Updated