The last 72 hours have seen a visible, concerted effort by the Republican Party leadership to stop Donald Trump from clinching their party’s presidential nomination. (By party, I’m using the broader definition advanced by The Party Decides crowd that includes interest groups and the media). It began with 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s blistering broadside against Trump last Thursday, in which he called The Donald “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Echoing Marco Rubio’s recent characterization of Trump as a “con man”, Romney continued: “He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
That night during the Republican debate Fox News set a thinly-veiled trap designed to ensnare Trump in his own lack of policy details. When Trump responded to moderator Chris Wallace’s question asking for specifics regarding how he planned to cut the budget deficit by saying he would eliminate the “Department” of EPA (it’s an agency, but never mind) and of Education, Wallace pounced by showing a graphic indicating that this would do little to close the budget gap. When Trump then said he would also make pharmaceutical companies bid properly to save money, Wallace showed another graphic indicating Trump was still exaggerating the amount of money that would provide based on Medicare payments. Trump then defensively claimed that proper negotiating across all government contracts would save billions of dollars. Later in the debate, Fox showed another graphic – this one from a John Kasich ad that suggested Trump might name Vladimir Putin as his running mate. When asked what the ad revealed about Trump’s foreign policy expertise, Kasich refused to bite, and instead moved on to discuss how he would handle Russia and Putin.
Without getting into the specifics of these exchanges, the effort by Fox to use graphics to hoist The Donald on his own lack-of-policy-specifics petard seems unusual by traditional debate coverage standards. But the effort to take down the Donald did not stop there. As I noted during my running debate commentary, while no one stunk up the joint on the debate stage that night, I thought Cruz had done little to expand his coalition beyond his conservative base. (For what it is worth, I thought Kasich easily “won” the debate – an assessment apparently shared by none of the talking heads in their debate post-mortems. But I digress.) Nonetheless, at the debate’s conclusion, the twitterverse was alive with comments from Republican Party stalwarts regarding how Cruz was the clear debate winner. It seemed to be another orchestrated effort by the party establishment to shift the election narrative.
Other party leaders, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, have publicly joined the Stop The Donald movement in recent days by (reluctantly in Graham’s case) saying they would support Cruz as the alternative. For his part, Cruz has made it clear that he is the only viable option on the table for those seeking to derail Trump’s candidacy. Other Republicans, meanwhile, are talking openly about a third-party run by a Republican, or how to orchestrate a coup against Trump at a brokered convention. Rubio’s supporters have pretty much acknowledged that their best hope is to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before the convention, at which point their man might emerge as the most viable alternative. As a sign of how desperate the Party is, some leading members are even saying that in a contest between Clinton and Trump – they would consider voting for Clinton!
Today will provide the first evidence whether any of these Stop Trump efforts are bearing fruit. Republicans are holding nominating contests in four states today – Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine, and in a fifth, Puerto Rico, tomorrow. All told some 178 delegates are up for grabs. If current polling is predictive (and polling in most of these state is sparse and highly speculative, given the nature of the contests) Trump could come out with close to half the delegates, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations. That would ensconce him even more firmly in the driver’s seat heading in Tuesday’s contests in Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho, where another 131 delegates are at stake. Current polling has Trump leading in Mississippi and Michigan. Unfortunately for Rubio and Cruz’s arguments that they are the only Trump alternative, polling indicates that Kasich is gaining ground in Michigan and he may very well finish second there. That would further fracture the Not-Trump field.
The bottom line is that heading into the crucial winner-take-all March 15 primaries in Florida, Ohio and Illinois (although they aren’t necessarily all winner-take-all), Trump may be less than 800 delegates away from clinching the nomination before the convention. If he does clinch the nomination outright, one need look no further than what has transpired these last few days to understand the cause. The Republican Party seems clueless regarding why Trump seems so resistant to efforts by leading party figures to bring him down. The short answer is that much of Trump’s support is premised on the idea that he is NOT part of the party establishment, and every time a Romney or a Kristol or a Fox News takes him on, Trump’s supporters are reminded of this. Beyond the economic populism and “racial resentment” that fuels much of Trump’s support, there is also a deep belief among his supporters that something needs to change in American politics, and that change is not going to come from within the existing party establishment. If I heard it once speaking to voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, I heard a variation of it a hundred times, “We have to do something to shake things up – simply voting for existing party candidates is not going to do it.” In short, there’s distinct sense among Trump supporters that the path to change is not going to come from within the Party.
Of course, from the Party’s perspective, the purpose behind the Romney et al attacks is not necessarily to peel off Trump’s supporters – it’s to motivate the party faithful to rally behind a suitable alternative. But beyond the obvious coordination problem – neither Cruz, Rubio or Kasich is showing any signs of bowing out as yet – I have to believe that every time the media publicizes a Stop Trump moment from within the Party, broadly defined, it gives undecided voters another reason to consider supporting The Donald as well. And, if turnout is any indication, Trump is bringing disaffected voters back to the fold – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a party that seemed to lose downscale white voters in 2012. (I’ll be up with a subsequent post indicating whether this increased primary turnout says anything about voting in the general election.)
So far Trump seems to be more than holding his own, despite – or because of – these Stop Donald efforts. Let’s see if anything changes today. My suspicion (says the man who told his students Donald would be out of the race in a matter of weeks) is that the Trump train will come out of this weekend and roll into Tuesday with a good deal of Trump-mentum.