What happens if nothing stops Donald Trump? He’s ahead in the polls just about everywhere, he has three wins to his name and a commanding lead in the delegate race, and there seems to be no gaffe that is powerful enough to halt him. He went on national TV this weekend and begged off the opportunity to disavow the endorsement of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. For any other politician that would be the ballgame, but for Trump you can’t assume that those same rules apply. So what’s the game plan if, as the polling data indicate, Trump romps through Super Tuesday tomorrow?
Right now the hopes of the Republican establishment rest on the increasingly shaky shoulders of Marco Rubio, whose preferred late-stage strategy for halting Trump’s momentum involves dick jokes and open-mic-night-caliber zingers about Trump’s spray tan. What Rubio’s strategy doesn’t involve, apparently, is getting the required number of delegates to win the nomination from Trump outright. His campaign is apparently briefing donors on their plans to take the fight all the way to the nominating convention and, if necessary, pull off some negotiated upset that will install Rubio as the Republican candidate for the White House.
“Contested convention” seems to be popping up more and more as the likely last-ditch opportunity to keep Donald Trump from becoming the de-facto leader of the Republican Party. John Kasich’s explicit strategy is to win Ohio and then hold out for the convention in the hopes that he’ll be viewed as the only acceptable mainstream alternative to Trump. (Rubio, by talking incessantly about the workings of Donald Trump’s penis, is currently helping Kasich make this case for him.) There’s even talk that a dark-horse “consensus” choice of the Republican establishment could be plucked from outside the ranks of the current candidates – someone like, say, Willard Mitt “Mitt” Romney, whose name has been thrown around as a sort of savior-in-waiting for when the convention descends into Trump-fueled chaos. The thinking, I suppose, is that after Rubio, Kasich and Ted Cruz have all debased themselves in trying to destroy Trump, Mitt will be compelled by a sense of civic duty to step in and rescue the party with his inimitable brand of awkward, milquetoast Republicanism.
A contested convention makes for very exciting speculation (personally, I find myself trembling with giddy anticipation at the thought of Romney on the trail again) and it seems like a source of consolation for party officials who would rather slam their own heads in a car door than see Trump at the top of the ballot. But let’s be clear here: Any non-Trump nominee who emerges from this scenario – Rubio, Kasich, Romney, Rick Perry, whoever – would be in for a world of hurt.
Right from the outset, whoever is nominated will face persistent and damaging questions about their legitimacy. If Trump goes into the convention holding the plurality of delegates but the party orchestrates a coup in favor of one of the other candidates, they’ll become the candidate the party establishment had to drag across the finish line because they couldn’t get there on their own steam. And that’s to say nothing of the unholy retribution Trump would rain down upon the GOP and its chosen non-Trump. He has no loyalty to the party and wouldn’t think twice about instructing his supporters to abstain from voting because they got cheated. He’d be on every cable news program lashing out at the GOP for conspiring against him and the large segment of the party that wanted him to be president. Snatching the nomination from Trump won’t make him go away, it will just piss him off.
And, of course, the Democrats will be happily pointing out that the person the Republicans selected – not elected – to defeat their nominee couldn’t even beat Donald Trump, a corrupt, racist, mango-faced clown. The Republican nominee would be catching it from all sides, with the opposing party and the Trump wing of the GOP attacking their legitimacy at every opportunity. And in that already toxic environment, they’d have to set about repairing the crippling internal divisions within the party before Election Day creeps up on them.
So sure, if it comes to it, a contested convention and some backroom deal-making might avert the Republicans’ worst fears of the Trump cancer consuming their party. But they’ll likely be left wondering whether the cure is any better than the disease.