The race for the Republican nomination is going to the convention. It must sound strange to hear that — given that this perennial contingency never gets past political-nerd fan fiction. It certainly feels strange to write it. But that’s where we’re headed. While the networks will quickly declare Trump the winner tonight in most (if not all) Super Tuesday states, the math is plain to see. At the current trajectory, no one — not Trump, not Rubio, not Cruz — will secure the necessary delegates to win the nomination outright. Nor, given the calculus, does anyone have any incentive to drop out. The very Mexican standoff that has enabled Trump thus far is likely to trigger a convention-floor failsafe. Somewhere John Nash is smiling.
Sure, things could change. Every candidate could internalize the drumbeat of news declaring Trump unstoppable and inevitable and simply roll over. The candidates could pull back from the nascent Trump onslaught and return exclusively to internecine warfare among themselves. Trump’s rumored decision to boycott future debates could be the most successful Jedi mind trick of all time. But amid the #NeverTrump sentiments mobilizing online and the third-party barrage about to be unleashed on the Donald on airwaves across the country, that all seems unlikely. The incentives for the not-Trump candidates to stay in the race actually increase as time goes on, provided the campaigns can marshal the resources to do so.
While some will cite McCain and Romney as instances where seemingly implacable opposition was quickly mollified, the resistance to Trump runs far broader and deeper than any front-runner before him. Never before has a favorite for the nomination faced well-funded challengers enjoying the overwhelming aggregate support of movement conservatives and party regulars who make up the broader delegation. Even the considerable fear and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton may be insufficient to rally the GOP faithful around Trump when you consider what her machine is already gearing up to do to him.
There would be nothing more destructive to the GOP than a Trump nomination.
Trump would lose the Senate for the GOP — that is a virtual certainty. The air war has already begun. He would expose the House conference to deep losses. And he would devastate the party in the very places it has been the strongest over the past six years, in the state legislatures. Whatever pockets of strength Trump might enjoy, any gains would be swamped by the inevitable revolt in the swing suburbs, nuking the GOP bench and leading to a Clinton-Schumer partnership that would enable the very immigration amnesty his supporters profess to be railing against.So we’re going to Cleveland. The only question is what happens after the first ballot. The race will be on to master arcane procedure, woo delegates, and mine the lessons of 1976 for whatever nuggets of precedent might be gleaned. Trump will beat his chest and demand the GOP crown him as the likely plurality leader. Cruz and Rubio will jostle for position in the interim and look to secure friendly delegates. Kasich will use the Ohio Republican Party apparatus to gain whatever edge he can as governor of the host state. Rules will be challenged and changed to great fanfare, the most notable being Rule 40, which now requires candidates to secure a majority of delegates in no less than eight states. Bedlam is pretty much assured. On the second ballot, more than half of convention delegates are unbound. By the third, nearly 80 percent are free agents.
What happens in the voting booths will be mere political prologue, as the electoral universe shrinks to 2,472. Barring some under-the-radar delegate recruitment and selection effort, few of these individuals will have any particular loyalty to Donald Trump, creating a big opening for the remaining field. The ensuing political mergers and acquisitions will be complex and fascinating. Strange bedfellows will emerge. And all this because on the convention floor, stump speeches and messaging go out the window — at that point, it will all be about the art of the deal.
— Liam Donovan is a former GOP staffer who works in government relations in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter at @lpdonovan.