Despite predictions to the contrary from party leaders, particularly Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, it is looking less likely than ever that the GOP is going to be able to heal the wounds of a divisive primary season once the general election campaign begins.
A new poll from NBC News shows just how deep the division between the supporters of frontrunner Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has become. It’s to the point that large supporters of each candidate now say that they will refuse to vote for the other candidate in a general election.
If Trump were to win the nomination, the survey found, only 56 percent of Cruz supporters said that they would vote for the man who has spent the last month referring to their candidate as “Lyin’ Ted” at every opportunity. Six percent said they would vote for Hillary Clinton, 9 percent said they would not vote at all, and 26 percent said they would cast their ballot for a third party candidate.
If Cruz were to win, the fallout would be even more dramatic. Only 53 percent of Trump voters said that they would vote for the Texas senator. Only 2 percent would throw their vote to Clinton, but a whopping 15 percent say they wouldn’t vote at all, and 28 percent would jump to a third party candidate -- possibly Trump himself.
The fact that the race seems headed to a contested convention in July only makes the job of Priebus and others in the Republican establishment more difficult.
For decades, party nominating conventions have not really been about choosing a nominee -- primary voters have usually already taken care of that by the time the convention rolls around by awarding one candidate enough delegates to ensure a victory on the first ballot.
Freed from the need to actually hold a real nominating contest, party leaders have been able to choreograph elaborate days-long events intended to cement the party faithful’s support of the nominee. Residual anger from the primary season has typically had a month or more to heal, and grudges are papered over by giving former rivals plum speaking spots and the praise of an adoring crowd.
But when Republicans meet in Cleveland in July, the forecast is for a political bloodbath if there is no prospective nominee. As delegates are released from their pledge to vote for a particular candidate in the early balloting, the fighting between the Cruz and Trump factions will be fierce, and when there is an eventual winner there will be little or no cooling-off period afterward in which to clean up the mess and engineer a convincing show of party unity.
This is really undiluted bad news for the GOP -- and not just its hopes for taking the White House.
Assume that the NBC poll exploring how voters will behave in a general election overstates the number of Trump and Cruz supporters who will actually break from the party by as much as 50 percent. Right now, Trump has about 40 percent of the GOP electorate behind him. If just 25 percent of his supporters decide to withhold their votes because Cruz is the nominee, that’s 10 percent of the overall Republican vote. Cruz has about 32 percent of the vote, so if only one-quarter of his voters don’t back Trump, that’s eight percent of the party’s support.
Neither of those numbers is something the Republican Party can be comfortable with. The GOP begins every presidential race with a demographic disadvantage that makes the path to victory narrow and the margin for error small. Losing eight or 10 percent of its voters throws all likelihood of general election victory out the window.
And one question the poll did not ask is how those supporters would vote if a third candidate, either Ohio Gov. John Kasich or an unnamed Republican nominated on the floor, were to be handed the nomination. How damaging to turnout would it be if both Trump and Cruz backers were alienated at the convention?
Beyond the White House, diminished turnout and residual anger toward the party establishment would likely hurt down-ballot GOP candidates, jeopardizing the party’s control of the Senate, maybe the House, and putting state legislative and gubernatorial elections in play.
It’s at least theoretically possible that an effort to start healing the party could begin in advance of the convention, but that would require candidates willing to put the good of the party ahead of their own personal ambitions, and that’s not a characteristic either Trump or Cruz has demonstrated in the past.