The Republican Meltdown Continues

Donald Trump’s crushing win in New York, combined with his significant lead in Indiana and 18-point lead in California are leading many prognosticators to believe that he will come very close to or even reach the magic 1,237 delegate number needed to secure the GOP nomination.

But some GOP power brokers, including one on the Rules Committee, have other ideas even if Trump does reach that number:

Curly Haugland, a longstanding RNC official and an unbound delegate from North Dakota who will be on the convention rules committee in July, told CNBC that attaining 1,237 during the primaries does not secure the nomination.

Huh?

“Remember every state has a different delegate allocation process,” he said. “Delegates are picked up in state contests that can be winner take all, open primaries, and remember there are seven states that allow the candidates to pick their own delegates. Until those delegate challenges are settled, there is no 1,237.”

Haugland said he expects the delegates won in winner-take-all states to be most likely challenged.

This is what is becoming known in some circles as one of the “nuclear options,” in which RNC members simply change the rules of allocation until Trump cannot reach a majority, at which point a second ballot would select someone else. That’s not to say that the entire establishment is on board with this idea: RNC chairman Reince Priebus has been pushing back on the Never Trump movement suggesting that the GOP will need unity no matter who the nominee may be. But frankly speaking, no one knows who is in charge at the moment because no one is in charge. Trump is meeting with GOP leaders trying to convince them that he has been putting on an act all along (which he almost certainly has been) and will be able to shift to center in the general election (which due to social media and the power of video recording he almost certainly will not be able to do without an utterly compliant media.) Some GOP leaders and donors appear to be thawing to Trump, but others are not.

The decision to throw over Trump at all costs would be easier for some Republicans if the next most legitimate choice weren’t Ted Cruz, who is perhaps even more hated by his colleagues than he is by the general public. Worse, the perception among conservative intelligentsia is that Ted Cruz is coming apart at the seams. Conservative establishment pundits like Jennifer Rubin are not-so-subtly advocating for delegates to throw over both Trump and Cruz and nominate Kasich or a white knight candidate instead:

Well, it is comforting for Trump foes to know that the math is forgiving. Cruz’s poor showing this week and next, along with disappointing results beyond that, won’t saddle the party with Trump. And yet, all those potential losses — some, very likely — don’t speak well of Cruz’s ability to unify the party at the convention or after it. Cruz is right to chastise Trump for ignoring the centrality of delegates in the nominating process. But he cannot forget about voters, whose lack of support will haunt him even if he manages to keep Trump from a first-ballot victory. Cruz’s situation is even more problematic when one considers that he will have to appeal to moderate voters in the general election…

In sum, Cruz’s main problem is not math. It is the difficulty he is having getting the party to unify behind him. Without solving that underlying issue, he will not pocket state victories necessary to develop the aura of a winner. While Cruz might keep Trump just short of 1,237 delegates before the convention, the delegates may feel very queasy picking someone who had multiple losses down the stretch. Delegates might not pick Trump, but with no one else looking like a winner, they just might go looking for someone who won’t struggle to unify his own party.

The challenge here, of course, is legitimacy. That and the burning, likely violent outrage of Donald Trump supporters (as well as Cruz supporters, under the circumstances) who will rightly feel cheated out of a successful populist revolt against the party apparatchiks they believe have failed and betrayed them.

There are no easy answers for Republicans here. A Donald Trump nomination likely means defeat in November and an enduring image problem with minority and women voters that will last decades–but it has the advantage of giving Republicans a plausible outside shot at white populist crossover appeal in the general election, as well as actual democratic legitimacy that the will of the voters was followed. Ted Cruz is perhaps their worst option: a man even more extreme than Trump on most issues who is almost equally as reviled by the public, without even the hope of an unusual electoral realignment. Kasich or a white knight might be more immediately appealing to the public in the general, but the lack of legitimacy among GOP base voters would almost certainly doom them as Trump and Cruz rallied their voting bases against the establishment that had passed them over. Nor would a Kasich solve the GOP’s longer-term problem that Reaganomics has ceased to be a credible answer for even a plurality of GOP voters, most less the broader electorate.

Even with months to see the trainwreck coming, GOP leaders have seemed utterly unable to prevent the imminent catastrophe. Now things are worse than ever, and no easy answers are in sight.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.