It is useful to read David French’s piece today on why — as a matter of rules — delegates to the Republican Convention are not actually bound to vote for Donald Trump alongside Erick Erickson’s piece on the growing discontent in GOP circles with Trump (donors in panic, elected officials rescinding endorsements) and readiness to consider abandoning him, Noah Rothman’s review of Trump’s many and unique disadvantages as a national candidate, and Harry Enten’s poll analysis of how Trump thus far is not consolidating enough of the white vote to beat Hillary Clinton. These are not separate stories, but a single story: The party has every reason to believe it faces defeat up and down the ticket with Trump, and at least in theory, it could still make a choice to replace him with another nominee, if enough nominally Trump-supporting delegates decide by late July in Cleveland that this is in the best interests of the party and the nation.
But what nominee, and at what cost? That’s the harder question. Any dump-Trump movement within the party must first surmount the same two problems that have thwarted the third-party-never-Trump effort, and that gave us Trump as the primary winner in the first place: the never-Trump effort suffered because nobody wanted to be the leader, and the primary field suffered because everyone did. Trump never did face a head-to-head race with a single opponent, and every effort to get first Chris Christie, then Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, then John Kasich to step aside or back a Trump opponent was too little, too late. Only if the many disparate factions can agree on a unified strategy — or if they can find a procedural way to dump Trump first and select a substitute second — is it even worth considering. Hence this, from Erick on the need to get Ted Cruz on board with the project:
Nothing will happen at the convention without Ted Cruz’s blessing. Cruz may be placed in the very unique position of having to be the statesman and lead his delegates. Because of the remaining animosity between Cruz and establishment players, Cruz might very well be able to shape a ticket that benefits Cruz without putting him in the top slot. If that ticket then goes on to lose to Hillary, Cruz is the one who stopped Trump and put the party above his own desires when 2020 comes around. If the ticket wins, he becomes President of the Senate before becoming President of the United States. Or he just fully takes on leadership of the conservative movement.
Cruz and [Scott] Walker are becoming key players as Trump continues to falter. The donor class feels comfortable with Walker and they think he could truly be persuaded to do it. The conservatives are comfortable with Cruz and recognize he has to be involved because of his delegate count and the personal loyalty of his delegates.
This pitch to Cruz is more or less the same pitch that was made to Marco Rubio to join a unity ticket with Cruz after Kansas, to no avail. I’m sure Cruz will consider all the strategic angles carefully – Ted Cruz may not always have a good strategy, but he always has a strategy — but it’s hard to predict whether he would go along with such a radical step, when he’s already positioned right now to be the 2020 frontrunner while standing aloof from the Trump fiasco. Not mentioned here is John Kasich, who like Cruz and Rubio is still holding his delegates, and like Cruz is in no hurry to endorse Trump.
Walker would be an intriguing possibility as a substitute, since he dropped out of the race early and therefore did not generate the same animosity from Trump’s supporters that Cruz, Rubio or Kasich did. He backed Cruz to the hilt in the Wisconsin primary, and unlike some other anti-Trump governors, he helped Cruz deliver a big win there, showing his continuing mastery of the Badger State. He looked great on paper before he launched his campaign, and his profile as a white, Midwestern, Harley-riding college dropout who’s never worked in DC would in theory appeal to the type of voter Trump has courted. His low-key personality, which got buried in a 17-candidate field, could be an enormous relief after a year of the Trump reality show. In 2006, Walker dropped out early from the primary for what turned out to be a failed campaign to win the Wisconsin Governorship for the GOP, and won party-loyalty chits he cashed in to sweep to the nomination in 2010; this would be a somewhat similar dynamic, but would involve a much more radical step he may blanch at taking.
On the other hand, Walker’s unsteady micromanagement of his primary campaign showed him to be, at best, a guy who needed time to scale up the learning curve of national politics, and he’d be the first candidate since Hubert Humphrey (then a sitting Vice President) to get thrown into a national nomination without running a full primary campaign. And the bitterness of Trump’s supporters would be real and legitimate, and hard for even the most creative political magicians to soothe in a general election campaign of just over three months. Most likely, Walker would find himself needing to take some harder lines on immigration and trade than he would have liked (or than he did last summer) in order to mollify at least some of those voters.
Then again, the opportunity to win may still be there. There remains a strong historic trend working against Hillary’s effort to hold the Obama coalition together for a third straight election, and her unfavorables would be the worst of any candidate in history if not for Trump. As Jim Geraghty notes, the incumbent president’s favorability ratings remain low in the battleground states; people are eager for a change. And Sean Trende’s arguments for why Trump could win are mainly premised on Hillary’s weakness and the fact that elections are often driven by factors other than who the candidates are. Trump’s polling at this stage of the race is abysmal: RCP has him at 40.3 percent nationally and falling fast, 42.6 percent in Florida, 42.3 percent in Pennsylvania, 41.3 percent in Ohio, 38 percent in Virginia and Michigan, 34.8 percent in Wisconsin — even 45 percent in Georgia. Yet, Hillary’s support is not so hot either, and some national polls have Gary Johnson in double digits. Plainly, a lot of voters are deeply unhappy with their choices, and might give a fresh look to a guy who has been keeping a low national profile since exiting the race early last September.
A party coup d’etat against a presumptive nominee — even one who won the lowest percentage of the popular vote in the history of popular GOP primaries — would be unprecedented, but everything about this election season has been unprecedented, and we’re not so far removed from watching the party maneuver Paul Ryan into the Speakership over the heads of a bunch of other people who’d actively pursued it. Many of Trump’s critics, like Ryan and Rubio, were unwilling to abandon him as the nominee on grounds of moral hygiene alone, but as the evidence of Trump’s political weakness mounts, it’s a nuclear option the party has a responsibility to examine seriously.