There hasn’t been much chitchat about this lately but there will be next week, assuming Trump does as well on Super Tuesday as everyone expects.
The strategy to this point championed by everyone from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio has been to treat the primaries as a game of “Survivor” with the winner earning the right to face Trump one-on-one for the nomination. For eight months, the rest of the field has operated on the assumption that Trump has a third of the party in his pocket and that the other two-thirds will end up with whoever emerges as the last Non-Trump standing. That … was a stupid assumption. Conservatives should want to clear the field if and only if they can reasonably expect that to guarantee Trump’s defeat. The moment it appears that that wouldn’t guarantee that — and I think that moment may have already passed — then a new strategy is in order. Namely, if no single man can deny Trump a majority of delegates head-to-head, perhaps two can. Should Rubio and Cruz accept that neither can catch Trump individually and instead try to play keepaway with the nomination?
The math is simple in theory. If Cruz drops out, Rubio will inherit most of his supporters — but Trump will inherit a sizable minority, pushing him closer to 50 percent. The same will be true if Rubio drops out, although Trump’s share of his voters is likely to be a bit smaller than his share of Cruz’s. If either man quitting means some votes moving towards Trump, arguably the thing to do is to keep Cruz and Rubio in the race to try to keep their voters in place for as long as possible. If Trump’s at 38 percent in a state, say, and Rubio and Cruz combined are at 45 percent there, he’ll likely earn fewer delegates that way than he would if one of the latter two dropped out. Without Cruz in the race, for example, Trump might pick up enough of his voters to move up to 45 percent himself while Rubio moves up only to 40. Trump would almost certainly end up with a near-majority of delegates if the race proceeded this way, with Rubio and Cruz each trading second- and third-place finishes in state after state, but it might prevent him from clinching a majority and force him to win the nomination on the convention floor. Is that worth doing? If you’re worried about Trump moving directly to the center in the general election, forcing him to make some promises to Rubio and/or Cruz at the convention to secure his win might be a way of maintaining a little conservative leverage over him.
Essentially, this approach would be the next best thing to Erick Erickson’s and Brandon Finnigan’s idea of Rubio and Cruz each “ceding” states to each other to unite the conservative vote there and hand Trump some outright defeats state by state. That sort of collusion isn’t going to happen, though. Which makes both of them staying in and running their own races a less effective but more viable Plan B.
There are all sorts of problems with this plan, though. One obvious one: This wouldn’t stop Trump in winner-take-all states. Even if the vote split 34/33/33 there, Trump wins all the delegates. It’s useful only in proportional states. Another major problem would be convincing donors to bankroll this strategy for months on end, long after it’s become obvious that Trump will finish with the most delegates even if he doesn’t clinch a majority. (And he might, despite Rubio’s and Cruz’s best keepaway efforts.) What rich donor is going to want to send Rubio a million bucks on the off-chance that he can win 25 percent of the vote in New York and make it slightly harder for Trump to clinch before Cleveland? Don’t forget either that many of these donors will want to ingratiate themselves to Trump once he’s the presumptive nominee (assuming he isn’t already), and funding a quixotic effort by the two conservatives to deny him delegates won’t help with that. Still another problem: How many conservative voters are going to come out to the polls to vote for Rubio and Cruz in April and May when Trump has an enormous delegate lead and the only suspense is over whether he’ll clinch outright? That’s the flip side of the dopey “Trump has a ceiling in the low 30s!” arguments. Rubio and Cruz don’t have a floor in the low 20s unto eternity. If Trump cleans up in Texas, Ohio, and Florida, their support in future primaries will probably drop into the 10-15 percent territory, I’d guess, as demoralized conservatives check out of the election. Even if they want to play keepaway, they don’t have the numbers.
And the big problem: Even if it worked, what would it achieve? Let’s say Trump goes into Cleveland with 48 percent of the delegates while the second-place finisher has 27 percent. Obviously Trump will be the nominee; his voters would walk if the party establishment crowned an also-ran to avoid giving him his due. I can imagine him making some sort of rhetorical concession to the right in exchange for becoming nominee … but I can’t imagine why anyone would take it seriously. Trump’s going to do what Trump’s going to do, whatever he may say at a given moment. If that’s the fruit of the “keepaway” strategy, dragging the race on and on through the spring when the outcome is all but assured by March 1st and you’re getting nothing truly valuable in Cleveland, how is it worth doing? And why would anyone who plans to vote for Trump this fall, which includes most of the Republican Party, tolerate seeing him weakened this way in the primary?