In the wake of Donald Trump’s dominant performance in the Super Tuesday primaries last night, desperate speculation about how to stop him from securing enough pledged delegates for a first-ballot win at the Republican convention in July has largely taken the place of speculation about how to beat him outright.
Trump took seven of 11 contests, winning by stunning margins in states as diverse as Massachusetts (by 31.2 percentage points) and Georgia (by 14.4 percentage points.) There is evidence that he is not only winning over a large segment of the Republican base but also that he is bringing new voters to the polls.
It is not hyperbole to say that Trump has created an existential crisis for the Republican Party – one that would play out very publicly in a brokered convention. Does the GOP risk losing its conservative identity – and many of its conservative members – by nominating Trump, a man with a history of vague and opportunistic policy positions? Or does it deny him the nomination, by hook or by crook, and almost certainly alienate both a huge swath of longtime supporters and the Trump-inspired newcomers in the process?
Either way, the likely result is a crippled candidate heading into a November showdown with Hillary Clinton. The Democrats already have a large demographic advantage over the GOP, meaning that while Republican candidates definitely have paths to victory in a general election, they are narrow and rely on winning multiple close races. If the GOP sees mass defections from either appalled conservatives or angry Trump supporters, the result will almost certainly be a loss in November. (To be clear, they wouldn’t have to switch their votes to Clinton. Just staying home would do the trick all by itself.)
Nevertheless, without saying it directly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made it pretty clear that for many Republicans, the main focus of the next few weeks will be limiting Trump to a plurality of delegates, and forcing the party into a brokered convention.
It amounts to an admission that an intra-party crackup is coming and that at least some among the GOP elites want, at minimum, to make sure it happens on their own terms.
Rubio, who won just one state out of 11 that allocated Republican delegates last night, told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “You know this is about delegate count. This is not a traditional race. Usually in a race like this, you’d have a frontrunner and at this point people would be saying you need to drop out and rally around the frontrunner for the sake of the party. They’re saying the opposite now. There will never come a time in this race where our supporters are asking us to get out and rally around Donald Trump.
“What people are saying is, ‘Fight as hard as you can to save the Party of Lincoln and Reagan from a con artist who refuses to criticize the KKK. If we nominate Donald Trump … it will be the end of the modern Republican Party.”
Pundits and analysts are floating increasingly outlandish – and improbable – proposals to stymie Trump. All the non-Trump candidates could throw their support to Ohio Gov. John Kasich in his home state of Ohio, and to Rubio in Florida to deny Trump huge winner-take-all prizes. A Cruz-Rubio, (or Rubio-Cruz, or Cruz-Kasich, or Rubio-Kasich) unity ticket could come together to deny Trump certain states.
Others are floating the possibility that the Republican National Committee and the organizers of the nominating convention could try to somehow change the rules binding delegates to specific candidates, giving the party establishment a chance to beat Trump in a floor fight.
If the GOP elites manage to manufacture a brokered convention, they might be able to derail Trump. But in an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday afternoon, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, warned that such an outcome could be “potentially quite destructive to the Republican Party” if they try it.
What would be worse for the party, Sabato was asked, denying Trump the nomination or dealing with the fallout from having him serve as the face of the party for the next election cycle and beyond?
“The choice between the devil and the deep blue sea...” Sabato said.