For decades, the Republican Party gave voters the impression that they get to pick the presidential nominee. The much-weakened GOP establishment theoretically has the power to choose someone else – but not, I believe, the strength of purpose to do it.
The author of this dilemma is, of course, Donald Trump. After a two-week pause in the primary schedule, Trump – a Manhattan icon – is expected to romp in New York on Tuesday and capture the lion’s share of the state’s 95 convention delegates. Polls show he is also likely to post big wins the following week, on April 26, in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
The bigger his victory margins, the closer Trump can come to securing 1,237 delegates, a majority, and thus making all the “contested convention” machinations moot. But it seems likely that when all the primaries and caucuses are done, he will fall short.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he comes to the convention with around 1,100 delegates – far more than rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich. What happens then?
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The Cruz campaign has worked tirelessly, and quite successfully, to ensure that as many delegates as possible are Cruz supporters, even if they are pledged to vote for Trump on the convention’s first ballot, which presumably would be inconclusive. In subsequent rounds of voting, those delegates would be free to switch to the Cruz side – and ultimately give him the nomination.
To pull this off, however, Cruz would need the support, or at least the acquiescence, of party insiders – who dislike Cruz almost as much as Trump. Many leading Republicans believe, in fact, that Cruz, with his hard-right views, would be an even surer loser in November than the unpredictable Trump, who is unburdened by philosophy.
I have heard veterans of GOP smoke-filled rooms make the argument this way: If the party is going to incur the wrath of primary voters and caucus-goers by nominating someone other than Trump, why pick a candidate who will most likely lose to Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee?
Why not pick someone who has a fighting chance with independents, such as John Kasich? Or even a “white knight” such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (who made clear last week that he does not want the nomination)?
I have also heard prominent Republicans argue that the convention delegates will have what amounts to a fiduciary duty to choose a candidate who is fit to serve as president. Trump’s volatile temperament and ignorance of policy, according to this view, make him ineligible.
And then there’s the political calculation. Some GOP graybeards believe the party is unlikely to capture the White House with any nominee. But Trump’s massive unpopularity with the wider electorate – about two-thirds of Americans view him unfavorably, and a recent Associated Press poll of registered voters found that 63 percent said they would never vote for him – could threaten the party’s Senate and House majorities. Cruz, Kasich or a white knight might lose without dragging the rest of the ticket down with them.
All of this is fascinating to ponder, at least for those who love politics. But I wouldn’t bet on any of these scenarios. I believe that if Trump comes anywhere close to a delegate majority, the party leadership caves and he gets the nomination.
Trump would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see what’s coming. In recent speeches, he has staked out the position that the candidate who comes to the convention with the biggest number of delegates should be the nominee, period. Polls show that a majority of Republicans agree with the helmet-haired billionaire. It turns out that once you tell people they get to choose their standard-bearer, they don’t take kindly to being patted on the head and told to go sit in the corner.
Trump’s newly hired convention manager, GOP veteran Paul Manafort, accused the Cruz campaign of using “Gestapo tactics” to steal delegates. Trump said Sunday that, gee, he sure hopes there’s no violence in Cleveland if the party establishment tries to take the nomination away from him. Not that he would ever suggest such a thing, of course.
As I said, all of this is moot if Trump wins a delegate majority outright. But if he narrowly misses the magic number, I don’t believe the debilitated establishment can muster the solidarity it would need to deny him. At this point, I’m afraid, the GOP is much more Trump’s party than theirs.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com.