If Trump gets dumped at the convention, is Cruz the presumptive nominee?

Just something I’m thinking about as I read stuff like this while drinking heavily:

If the delegates decide enough’s enough and pull the trapdoor on Trump in Cleveland, is Cruz the guy? Yep, says Michael Brendan Dougherty, in all likelihood — and that’s yet another reason to think the trapdoor won’t get pulled. Not only will many of the delegates in Cleveland be Trump loyalists, not only will there be massive anxiety within the party about staging a coup against the candidate whom voters chose, but we’ve learned the hard way that many establishmentarians have no strong preference for Cruz over Trump. If you think they’re both destined to lose this fall, especially if the party splits over a last-second switcheroo at the convention, why not stick with Trump?

Let me counter that with a different question, though: Would Cruz still want the nomination at this point? I’m not so sure. Dougherty:

Of course, a convention coup is likely to fail. Republicans have been notoriously slow-footed and uncoordinated in responding to Trump. And there are two major obstacles to its success. The first is the moral obligation that convention delegates feel to vote for the winner of their state or district. Trump may have only won a plurality of primary voters, but even if the Rules Committee unbinds the delegates, many will still feel morally obligated to vote for him on the first ballot. If that’s the case, Trump will be close enough to prevailing that the effort to deny him may stall out immediately.

The second obstacle is more familiar. His name is Ted Cruz. The Texas senator will come in with the biggest anti-Trump weapons, the loyalty of delegates who are pledged to him and the many party activists who admire him even if they are bound to Donald Trump. Cruz would be essential to organizing any coup at the convention. And as the next leading vote-getter, he would have demands — possibly including the nomination itself. While Cruz may be more electable than Donald Trump, it is by a margin so slim that the risks of a convention coup and riot in Cleveland may not seem worth trying. Many elected Republicans and big GOP donors view Cruz as treacherous and repellent. They won’t give his candidacy much more support than Trump’s.

It’s possible that Hillary will be indicted, it’s possible that she’ll have a health crisis that will cripple her candidacy, but you wouldn’t bet on either outcome. If she skates on potential charges related to her e-mail server and continues to run strong to November, any Republican who takes the baton from Trump is so likely to lose due to the GOP schism after the convention that he’d be running as a sacrificial lamb. He’d have next to no campaign apart from what the RNC could provide him with and what he himself could patch together on the fly. He couldn’t even ask Trump’s campaign team to fill the vacuum for him since Trump barely has any national infrastructure. The GOP, helped along by Romney’s network, would try to raise hundreds of millions for him in a pinch but many donors wouldn’t kick in for fear that the cause was already lost. Even in a best-case scenario, the nominee would be operating at an enormous financial disadvantage. Who wants to step into that role? Does Ted Cruz, with his own campaign already disassembled?

The risk for Cruz if he runs is that he’d be accepting a very long longshot opportunity, hobbled by institutional weaknesses, and might be sacrificing his chance at a future successful run in the process. That’s the key. If Cruz is perceived by pro-Trump Republican populists as having engineered the coup against Trump, their bitterness not just towards the party but towards him personally may carry on for years and years. Cruz needs populists to have a chance at the nomination in 2020; if he’s radioactive to them then usurping Trump in Cleveland suddenly becomes his best and last shot at the presidency, and that ain’t much of a shot. Granted, Cruz’s initial plan to beat Trump on the second ballot at the convention by holding him below 1,237 pledged delegates also risked forever alienating pro-Trump populists, but maybe not as many. The rules, after all, did say that the nominee needed a clear majority of delegates to win. If Trump failed to gain that majority, Cruz as nominee had a claim to legitimacy. He won’t have the same claim if the rules are suddenly rewritten to undo Trump’s primary win and allow the delegates to ignore the choice of Republican voters. And of course, if Cruz’s initial plan had worked out, his campaign team would have remained intact and they would have hit the ground running after the convention. He’d have to cobble his organization back together now and beg the Republican establishment to back him in order to unite the party quickly in order to have any chance at Hillary. What reason is there to think they would? They’re already resigned to losing this fall. If they lose with Cruz instead of Trump, hey, so much the better. That’s two threats they no longer have to worry about instead of just one.

And all of this assumes that Cruz even could feasibly win in Cleveland. There may be enough Trump loyalists among the delegates now to deny his bitter rival the nomination, even if there are also enough anti-Trump delegates to ensure that Trump can’t win it himself. So here’s a thought: What if Cruz passes? What if he agrees with what conservative friends are allegedly telling him, that his failure this year is the modern equivalent of Reagan’s in 1976 and that he’s better off leading a conservative resurgence in 2020? Let someone else be the sacrificial lamb, someone who has less to lose by stepping in at the last moment to replace Trump and then losing graciously. How about … Scott Walker? If you believe the rumors, Walker’s open to the idea, and I can sort of see why. Unlike Cruz, Walker’s been off the national radar since leaving the race last September. If he was drafted to replace Trump, it would feel less like a usurpation by the second-place finisher than an act of good-soldiering for the party by a guy who was drafted into an impossible role that he hadn’t seriously sought in nine months. Walker’s base is less populist than Cruz’s is too, so even if some pro-Trump righties concluded they’d never forgive him for agreeing to replace Trump, that wouldn’t hurt Walker’s chances as much if he chose to run again in 2020. Running a national campaign as GOP nominee would give him a huge boost for 2020, in fact, by making him a household name this year. And Walker wouldn’t have the same stink of defeat on him as other presidential losers do because he could argue, quite correctly, that the role was foisted on him with little notice and no preparation amid a party schism that made victory nearly impossible. Many Republicans would sympathize with him more than scorn him if/when Hillary won. And hey — there’s some small chance that Walker would shock everyone and win the election anyway. Hillary’s deeply unpopular and, as Dougherty says, it’s conceivable that her campaign will go sideways for some unforeseen reason. If you’re Walker, would you accept the task of running for president for three months knowing there’s little downside to your future prospects and, say, a one in 20 chance that you’ll actually win? Sure, why not?

Walker was a big Cruz booster before the Wisconsin primary and helped deliver the state to him in early April. Cruz could repay the favor at the convention by stepping aside as nominee-in-waiting and touting Walker instead. Cruz would calculate that Walker has almost no shot at winning, which would leave Cruz well positioned to run again four years from now against President Hillary without the enmity of Trumpers that he’d earn by taking Trump’s crown himself. If Walker did somehow win, Cruz would be in line for a plum administration position or even a Supreme Court slot. Even in a worst-case scenario for him, he’d be a prominent ally of a new Republican president and would still be just 46 years old on Inauguration Day. Cruz will be in the presidential mix potentially for the next 25 years. Why not wash his hands of this election, count on almost certain Republican defeat, and let someone else clean up the mess in the unlikely event that Trump is ousted?

Exit question via Quin Hillyer: What if Trump, fearing an image-shattering defeat this fall, decides to quit instead of being deposed at the convention? Would that change the calculus for Cruz about alienating populists by stepping in to fill his shoes as GOP nominee?