The GOP's chaotic last resort: Inside the calls for a brokered convention — and why it will never, ever happen

Reports are now surfacing that some Republicans want to nominate Romney from the floor if Trump's poised to win

Published December 12, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Dominick Reuter/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Dominick Reuter/Photo montage by Salon)

For the GOP, it just keeps getting worse: The news that top Republicans are “preparing” for a brokered convention should Donald Trump win the primary, and that the compromise candidate could actually be Mitt Romney, has spilled out into the open, and already, the party’s outsider candidates are raising hell. Ben Carson is threatening to leave the party should Republicans nominate a candidate who wasn’t even in the race; Ted Cruz is hedging his bets by calling Trump “terrific” after implying to a private group of donors that “gravity” would bring Trump and Carson’s campaigns down; and Trump, even before the most recent news, told CNN’s Don Lemon that “all options were open” if he felt the party’s leaders were disrespecting him.

Carson and Trump, however, probably don’t have to worry about anything; if this plan were to actually come to fruition, it would result in the complete and utter fissure of the Republican Party, which is something the GOP’s leaders would never let happen.

This has been a long time coming, and Republicans only have themselves to blame. Since 2010, when the Tea Party first helped the Republicans win back the House, hardline conservatives have sought to gain control of the party at the expense of a partnership with the establishment it swung into the majority. The culmination of this was the resignation of Speaker John Boehner to avoid the indignity of being tossed from his chair, followed by his second-in-command Kevin McCarthy dropping out of the race to replace him, after which time it threatened to elect a Freedom Caucus member as Speaker of the House before finally voting for Paul Ryan.

All the while, Donald Trump has been absolutely crushing his competition in the Republican primary based upon his complete lack of government experience (a plus), a willingness to advocate for openly racist policies (ditto), and a tendency to blame everything on the great evil of our time, political correctness.

The problem is that Trump, as a general election candidate, is utterly unelectable, and even if he weren't, he can't really expect to build an electoral coalition based solely on people who hate immigrants, Muslims, and politicians more than anything else. He’s not a traditional tax-hating conservative like Ryan; he’s not a neo-con like Rubio; nor is he even a Tea Partier like Ted Cruz. His rise in the polls is based solely upon his propensity to say stupid things and not apologize for them. His base of support is a Twitter egg.

Because of that, he’s completely uncontrollable, which is why party elites are considering the brokered convention. This is not, however, the Republican primary of 1952, the last time there was a brokered convention; nor is it even the Republican primary of 1976, the last time a convention opened without a presumptive nominee. This is the 21st century, where most voters think that the (admittedly insane) presidential primary process is like any other actual election, like it should be, where the candidate with most votes wins.

If Trump is somehow able to win a plurality of votes throughout the country and come into the convention with even half the lead he currently has over the other candidates in the polls, the Republicans have two choices: first, nominating Romney or another candidate from the floor and watching the party descend into complete and utter chaos on live television. Plan B is letting Trump win and sacrificing this election in order to possibly save the party going forward.

If Republicans nominated someone that didn’t run in the primaries at all, it would still be controversial; nominating Romney would go over about as well as John Roberts closing the convention out with a three-hour speech about his Supreme Court vote on Obamacare. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, conservatives blamed Romney's lack of conservatism for his loss to President Obama, and given how various Republican candidates have been ganging up on Romney during this campaign, his reputation hasn’t regained much ground among the right-wing of his party.

Because of this, Mitt Romney is not some great unifying figure in his party. He is not Dwight Eisenhower, who was able to win the nomination in 1952 through a brokered convention not only because he was a national hero, but because most states didn’t even have a primary process back then, and both Gov. Earl Warren of California and Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York preferred him to the much more conservative Robert Taft. Nor is he Ronald Reagan, the last candidate who was considered for nomination from the convention floor.

Even disregarding their hatred of Romney as a candidate, the idea that the GOP establishment (often the biggest target of their criticisms) would essentially render the entire primary process meaningless would probably be the nail in the coffin of the coalition between Republicans and the Tea Party; as Carson himself said, if GOP Chairman Reince Priebus and others try to maneuver the nomination out of Trump’s hands, this could be the “last Republican convention.”

If there’s major speculation that this could happen even as we’re in the middle of the primaries, Trump would most likely drop his Republican bid and run as a third party candidate. Clay Mulford, an adviser to the most successful third party run in the last hundred years— Ross Perot in 1992 — told CNN that this process would have to start “no later than probably the beginning of March.”

And there’s indication that he’d be somewhat successful in bringing support with him; a recent poll shows that over two-thirds of Trump’s supporters would support him even if he left the Republican Party. That would give him at least 10 to 20 percent nationally, potentially more if Republicans nominate someone like Romney or Jeb Bush, a candidate that energizes the Tea Party even more to vote for an outsider.

This would undeniably be good for the liberal side of the country, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan pointed out, because it would split the Republican vote and sweep whichever Democrat wins the nomination to an easy victory. Even further, it could result in a few third party candidates popping up all over the country to challenge traditional Republicans, which would hand over a few extra House, Senate and state and local-level seats to Democrats.

The alternative to this three-way clowncar is much bleaker for the country, but much better for the party’s traditionalists like Ryan, Priebus, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: simply letting Trump win.

If Trump were to win with mostly Tea Party support, the Republican Party would be undeniably crushed in the general election. Trump may have a plurality of support in the Republican Party, but large swaths of traditional Republicans — the Religious Right, anti-tax people — would either stay home or swing to the Democratic side in order to avoid a Trump administration. This would effectively end the argument that Republicans just need to espouse more hardline conservative ideas regarding immigration, terrorism and government to win over the country. What could be a better asset for Ryan and McConnell to control unruly caucuses than a wholesale repudiation of the hardliners in their party?

Either way, Democrats are benefitting from the systematic meltdown within the Republican party being given a national stage. Republican elites already look dismayed at the possibility that Trump could win this thing, and if either Trump or Carson decides to run a third-party campaign to derail the Republican nominee, it would give the Democratic nominee a broad mandate to shape policy for at least a few years. And after six long years of the GOP establishment placating and pandering to the most intolerant and uncompromising wing of their party, really: isn’t that what they deserve?

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