Let’s be honest. If the Republican front-runner was anyone other than calloused anger-pillow Donald Trump — if it were a bog-standard Republican senator or governor, or anyone else in the field, frankly — there wouldn’t be much resistance to the idea that the party’s nomination was locked up. Based on the states won, the delegates claimed and polls suggesting where the future is headed, we’d all think it was looney-tunes that there was a gaggle of other competitors thinking they still have a shot.
Especially when you consider who those other competitors are. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came out ahead in his home state and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday — no mean feat — but his theory of the “SEC primary” delivering scads of evangelical voters to his doorstep didn’t pan out, and remaining states don’t neatly accommodate his evangelical turnout theory. Cruz finds himself having lost his base of support at the very moment he needs to be expanding it.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio can now say he has won a state outright: College-educated, middle-of-the-road voters finally delivered for him in Minnesota. But for all the mammoth investment in Rubio as the establishment darling, he failed in some fundamental ways on Super Tuesday — most glaring, he didn’t clear some crucial 20 percent thresholds in states with rich delegate rewards.
At this point, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is pretty much a no-hoper, with few states he can compete in and not enough of a campaign war chest to aid in the competition. And Ben Carson… well, he’s out of the race as of Wednesday afternoon. Plus, nobody was ever really sure his was an authentic attempt to mount a White House run, as opposed to a campaign simulacrum kept alive long enough to siphon donations and sell books.
But before we dismiss Cruz, Rubio and Kasich, let’s remember that Romney — who amassed a large delegate lead by winning six of 10 Super Tuesday states four years ago — proceeded with three other competitors until May, all of whom clung to a difficult-to-imagine theory of how they could win.
So what’s behind the persistence of Trump’s competitors? There are three components:
1. They just need more time, man! While anti-Trump diehards may be whistling past the graveyard, they look at Tuesday’s results and see hope in the offing. They’ll point to the fact that except for in Massachusetts, Trump largely underperformed compared to what his poll numbers had predicted. They’ll note that Rubio and Cruz, for all their woes, nevertheless made up ground in several states that might have ended in Trump blowouts had they not abruptly, and belatedly, trained their guns on him in the pre-Super Tuesday debate. And they’ll point out that in just a few hours, they’ll get a chance to hit Trump again on the debate stage.
The idea here is that if ground can be made up in five days, surely a sustained effort could narrow the gap further as the primary season lopes to the middle of March. The goal: keep making the case that Trump is a fraud-slash-con artist, and keep his ceiling low. Of course, it may not be possible to prevent Trump from expanding his support if the remaining candidates do what political science generally suggests they should do.
2. An alternative theory of winnowing. Typically, when the best-case scenario of defeating Trump has been presented, a key element involves the anti-Trump field narrowing to a single competitor — someone who can be entrusted to become the safe harbor for voters who’d rather not see a reality-television nincompoop become the presidential nominee. But what if the only way to beat Trump requires the remaining candidates sticking it out together as some sort of Marvel team-up?
The truth is, voters that support Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Carson do not reorder themselves in a neat and organized anti-Trump fashion when their candidate leaves the race. In February, MSNBC’s data team took an account of what voters do when the GOP field narrows. Its findings indicated that many of the benefits that flowed to the other non-Trump candidates were offset by a stream of those same voters to Trump.
Obviously, some ceded more voters to Trump than others. According to MSNBC’s numbers, Cruz keeps a lot of voters who would flow to Trump pinned to himself just by staying in the race. While one-third of his supporters would gravitate to Rubio, 26 percent would move to Trump.
Even the so-called “establishment” candidates lose voters to Trump. Rubio would send 31 percent of his backers to Cruz, but the 17 percent that would go to Trump would limit the benefit. Kasich would send 16 of his crowd to Trump by dropping out.
And file this away, now that Carson is bowing out of the race. MSNBC found that his supporters would break nearly evenly between Cruz and Trump — 24 percent to 22 percent. Rubio is expected to pick up 16 percent of the doctor’s supporters, and another 17 percent aren’t sure where to go. Carson’s departure could, right now, be enough to nail the door shut on the anti-Trump movement.
A big caveat to these numbers is that they’re dated: They were taken at a time when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was still an alternative candidate. But the point is that we may be past the moment where winnowing to a single anti-Trump avatar does the trick. What big gains exist for Trump’s opposition are offset by significant migrations to the reality-television star. It resembles one of those NCAA Tournament matchups where the 14-seed battles back from 24 points down, to close it five, and the three-seed breaks its back with a well-timed pair of three-pointers.
So it could be that what people in the anti-Trump field need the most right now is each other, an idea Jon Podhoretz endorsed in Wednesday’s New York Post:
[Rubio’s senior campaign managers] told donors that it was likely Trump could not be defeated outright and in that case the only recourse would be to stay in the race to deny Trump a majority of the Republican delegates, take the race to the convention floor in July, and see if a counter-uprising can be staged against the Trump movement.
This can’t be Rubio’s strategy alone. It has to be Cruz’s strategy as well, and that of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Of course, this means we know where this is headed.
3. This will be decided in Cleveland. Of course, now that we’ve arrived at the realization that the anti-Trump forces have to array themselves as three men in a desperate death pact to deny Trump the chance to notch the nomination outright, there’s only one way this gets resolved — on the convention floor in Cleveland. This will not be a pretty sight.
First of all, this is where a lot assumptions will finally be put to the test. Will Trump’s delegates really prove to be disloyal to him? Are they actually likely to jump ship to other candidates on successive ballots? And will Trump really get out-worked on the convention floor by the presumed-to-be-more-experienced operators working for the other campaigns?
And what of all the assumptions that have been made about the Republican establishment? Will they be resolute in backing an effort to take down Trump in a floor fight? It could very well be that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus sees possibilities in a Trump presidency — that it’s something his party could make the best of, if it came to swearing him in. Wouldn’t it be much worse for Priebus’ career to preside over a busted convention that birthed a Trump independent run?
I’ll put it like this: If my life depended on the RNC’s top machers proving themselves to be made of sterner stuff than Chris Christie, I’d be putting my worldly affairs in order right now.
Additionally, once the campaign hits the convention floor, Trump’s competitors will no longer have the luxury of putting off the winnowing of their ranks. It’s tough to imagine how and under what conditions either Rubio or Cruz cedes the nomination to the other. Who’d broker the deal, and what would a deal look like? How many rounds of balloting would it take, at this late stage, to bring about a surrender? What happens if Bush jumps back into the mix? There’s no guarantee. This scenario just essentially defers all of the pain of the primary season until the convention is convened in July.
One last thing that needs to be accounted for. OK, let’s say that all the theories that permit Trump’s competitors to dare to dream of a future in which they dispatch him hold, that sticking together keeps Trump from notching the delegates needed to claim victory, and that a floor fight results in Trump being handily dispatched. And for the sake of argument, let’s also say that Trump’s threatened independent run was a bluff — that he lacks both the work ethic and the liquid assets to run a campaign on his own. Now what?
The largest irony of the mad plan to save the GOP from the potential damage of Trump’s predations is that the effort may yet result in mortal damage to the Republican Party. If it’s the will of a sizable portion of the GOP base to elect Trump as the nominee, on the basis that the GOP establishment is a clapped-out, insular gang of elites that no longer relate in any way to the needs of the conservative blue-collar grassroots, what happens when those same elites snatch the nomination from Trump in the ultimate Beltway backroom deal?
The answer: nothing good. This desperate gambit likely leaves the most restless and activist portion of the GOP base feeling angry and disaffected and vengeful. Those people will stay home in November, imperiling both the GOP’s presidential nominee and their downticket endeavors, and it’s going to be knives out for the establishment thereafter. The central gamble of those who see Trump as a cancer on the conservative movement is that the movement will still struggle to survive the chemotherapy.
One last irony: If what it takes to defeat Trump is to pluck the nomination from him as his electoral success is cresting, those that succeed in evicting him will never be able to claim that Trump’s toxicity made him uniquely unelectable.
In two successive election cycles, the notion that the Republican Party could nominate a polite, presentable candidate and win has failed to pass the proof-of-concept test. This has engendered a longing in the GOP base for a more extreme, aggressively conservative alternative — and they believe they’ve found one in Trump. Should they now come to be denied their desires and see the GOP defeated a third time, they’ll be back in four years, baying for another divisive, slur-spewing, fascism-flirting, nativist dreadnought, because no one will have proven that they aren’t wrong to want one.
Defeating Trump in this nominating contest is going to be difficult in the extreme. It will require a daring high-wire act and a few rounds of brutal wheeler-dealing at the Republican National Convention. And yet, even if this heist is pulled off, worse days could lie ahead. In the end, the mark Trump has left on the Republican Party could prove to be more indelible than the man himself.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.