How many men ever get to say, “Today my fondest dream came true?”
I’m glad you were here to share this special moment with me, my friends.
More than 20 of them convened Monday for a dinner held by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, where the prospect of Trump nearing next year’s nominating convention in Cleveland with a significant number of delegates dominated the discussion, according to five people familiar with the meeting.
Considering that scenario as Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) listened, several longtime power brokers argued that if the controversial billionaire storms through the primaries, the party’s establishment must lay the groundwork for a floor fight, in which the GOP’s mainstream wing could coalesce around an alternative, the people said…
Upon leaving, several attendees said they would soon share with one another memos about delegate allocation in each state as well as research about the 1976 convention, the last time the GOP gathered without a clear nominee…
“I’ll be disadvantaged,” [Donald Trump said]. “The deal-making, that’s my advantage. My disadvantage is that I’d be going up against guys who grew up with each other, who know each other intimately and I don’t know who they are, okay? That’s a big disadvantage. . . . These kind of guys stay close. They all know each other. They want each other to win.”
Before we get to gaming this out, here’s a thought: Did the RNC leak this deliberately to placate Trump? He’s been making more noise than usual lately about how he might quit the party and run as an independent if they’re not “nice” to him or whatever. That’s the nightmare scenario for the RNC, even more than nominating Trump would be. (We can argue over whether they have their priorities straight about that.) By signaling that they’re preparing for a brokered convention, they’re telling him that they think he’s for real and fully expect him to contend into the summer, in case he was having any quiet doubts himself. The longer he’s in the race, the less likely it is that he can run third-party since the ballot deadlines for some states begin as early as March. If he hangs in there with dreams of winning at the convention, the window to bolt the party will close. And then, if he’s not the Republican nominee, he’s done.
The convention they’re preparing for, obviously, is a three-way split between Cruz, with social cons and tea partiers behind him; Rubio, with center-righties and establishmentarians in his corner; and Trump, with his coalition of blue-collars and Jacksonians. I suppose something weird could happen where Jeb Bush or Christie bumps Rubio out of his niche before New Hampshire, but if we’re destined for a three-man race, this is almost certainly what it looks like. So then: What happens at a convention where each of them have roughly a third of the delegates in their pocket? One splashy possibility is that the delegates deadlock and the party is forced to look elsewhere for a consensus choice. It won’t be Romney; all that would do is annoy everyone. Paul Ryan is a better bet, but Ryan is now viewed suspiciously by enough righties that he probably wouldn’t be a uniter either. Rubio fans would accept him but Cruz and Trump fans wouldn’t. Realistically, it would need to be one of the three candidates. Imagine how much emotion each man’s supporters will have invested in the race by June, only to see some semi-random character brought in and offered as an alternative instead. It would reek of the establishment trying to upend the table and install “their guy” after months of battle, a bad move at any time but especially in a populist climate. It won’t happen.
My guess is that some sort of deal would be struck to create a Cruz/Rubio ticket. Job one for the RNC at the convention would be to deny Trump the nomination (as Trump himself basically acknowledges in the excerpt above) while also placating his supporters so that they’re willing to stick around through November and vote Republican in the general election. Rubio, because of his immigration record, is probably unacceptable to too many Trump fans to be the nominee. Cruz, who’s more of an immigration hawk, might be okay. Trump has too much of an ego to be anyone’s VP and the party will want to calm center-righties who loathe the idea of a party led by Cruz, so Rubio is the obvious VP consolation prize. The RNC won’t like nominating Cruz but if doing so holds the party together and keeps Trump off the ballot, they’ll accept that compromise at that point. Where this becomes tricky, obviously, is in the number of delegates each man has when the convention begins. If Rubio has 40 percent and Cruz and Trump each have 30, how do you tell Rubio fans that their man needs to be VP instead of president? If Trump has 40 and Rubio and Cruz each have 30, what do you say to Trumpers? I think the RNC could tolerate an outcome (happily) where Rubio has a plurality of delegates or (grudgingly) where Cruz has a plurality, but if Trump has the plurality there’ll be war. And even if he doesn’t, what do you offer Trump to satisfy him if he’s not the nominee himself? Is there anything Rubio could dangle in front of him to earn his endorsement over Cruz? Is there anything Cruz could offer to get Trump to quit? Offering to make him, say, head of DHS would horrify anti-Trumpers almost as much as nominating him would.
Don’t forget the X factor in all of this, though: Rule 40(b). I recommend following that link and re-reading my post from January about it, as it may decide the nominee even if no one ends up with a clear majority of delegates. According to Rule 40(b), the nominee must have a clear majority of delegates in at least eight states to have his name placed in nomination. All of the states that vote before March 15th are required to award their delegates proportionally. Starting on March 15th, the remaining 27 states/districts are free to award all of their delegates to the winner, ensuring a majority to the victor in that state. That doesn’t mean all of them will, but they can if they want. (And most, if not all, probably will.) It may be that Trump, Cruz, and Rubio will each win a majority in eight states, which puts us right back in the scenario above. It may be that only two will, in which case one of them will be disqualified and the GOP will have to decide between the other two. Or it may be that only one does and that guy — assuming Rule 40(b) isn’t changed in the interim — is the nominee by default because he’s the only one who qualified in accordance with the rules. Imagine the clusterfark, though, if, say, Trump enters the convention with the most delegates but somehow has only won a clear majority in seven states whereas Cruz and Rubio each notched majorities in eight. The delegate leader would be automatically eliminated. Would Trump fans stand for that? What if the RNC creates a few unpledged “superdelegates” in the next few months who can vote however they please and just so happen to be drawn from the ranks of the donor class? How would Trumpers feel about that?
It’s gonna be real. Two things, though. One: Er, is it really possible that no one picks up enough momentum along the way here to effectively eliminate the other two guys? I can imagine a long two-man race a la Obama and Hillary in 2008 but it’s hard to imagine three different people alternating wins consistently for months, notwithstanding that each of them has different regional and demographic appeal. Two: Go look at the primary schedule and check out all the winner-take-all states starting on March 15. A lot of them are blue states, which you would think would favor Rubio or Trump over Cruz. If the delegate counts are close, would it matter if one candidate piled up a bunch of wins late and seemed to be catching on nationally before the convention? Or would the argument be, “Who cares about blue states? We’re going to lose those anyway. It’s the purple states that matter.”