Is The Party Inadvertently Deciding For Trump?

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.


  1. Two questions:

    1) What should the Republican Party being doing instead?

    2) In regard to your coming post on voter turnout, is there any advantage to long, protracted primaries on both sides as far as registering more voters in each respective party? Or, from a field organizing perspective, engaging volunteers and supporters in late-primary states to establish a ground game for the general election earlier than they otherwise would?

  2. Mitchell – Great questions. Regarding the Republican Party, my advice is to show some faith in your party and its processes. It seems to me that putting a nomination process in place that is designed to reflect the will of the people – at least those people participating in your nominating process – is premised on the proposition that the people are capable of making the “right” choice. Do you believe that or not? If not, you need to explain why they got it wrong this time. And you need to do so in a way that doesn’t offend the plurality of people who think they have made the right choice in backing Trump. The alternative approach, and the one I think I now advocate, is to let the process play out without overt attempts to tip the scales. If Trump wins, then you have to embrace him in the hope you can soften him around the edges to make him more palatable to a general electorate. At least that’s my current thought. I can’t believe actively opposing him is doing any good, not least because it appears to be driving up his support, although we will know more after today.

    As for your second question, I’ll know more after we crunch some numbers. But my general sense is that a protracted contest does pay dividends in terms of field organization.

  3. “It seems to me that putting a nomination process in place that is designed to reflect the will of the people – at least those people participating in your nominating process – is premised on the proposition that the people are capable of making the ‘right’ choice.”

    OK, but Trump’s been averaging just 34.2% of the primary/caucus vote. Couldn’t Republican leaders legitimately argue that (a) he’s therefore NOT the choice of the(ir) people, (b) an effort to stop him is actually a better reflection of the people’s wishes, and (c) it’s a mistake to confuse winning plurality victories in a multi-candidate field, in a series of possibly ill-designed or ill-scheduled primaries, with being the people’s choice?

    It seems to me there’s a tendency in US political commentary, perhaps because of America’s long history of winner-take-all elections, to fetishize victory and forget that its meaning is necessarily relative to the setup out of which it emerges. Suppose the GOP this year had adopted a single national primary that happened all on one day. Then, 21 candidates run for the nomination and divide up the national vote such that the “winner” has only a plurality in the single digits. Would that nominee legitimately qualify as the “choice” of Republican voters? (This, by the way, could well have been what happened in the California recall election some years ago if a famous movie star hadn’t been running. There were over 60 candidates, IIRC, and whichever of them happened to get the most votes, even if that was 2%, would become governor.)

    I remember the commentary in the years just after the 2000 election that talked about what qualities had allegedly made George W. Bush a more appealing candidate than Al Gore. Well, um: Gore actually got more votes. So what evidence is there that Bush was more appealing? It seemed like people simply forgot this key fact, and assumed that whoever emerges from some Rube Goldberg contraption of an electoral system (plus lawsuits, in that case) and takes the oath of office must have somehow mystically become a vessel for the people’s will. Are we making that mistake again in the way we talk about Trump?

  4. Jeff,

    You make a valid point. The difficulty for Trump’s opponents, however – as The Donald so adroitly pointed out in last Thursday’s debate – is that everyone else is doing worse than him! So he can say, “Yes, but there are even more people opposed to your candidacy!” This is why the anti-Trump Republicans need to solve that coordination game. The other point to keep in mind is that ultimately the nomination comes down to delegates, not popular votes (although the two are related of course.) Trump will have to get a majority of delegates to win – not just a plurality. So there’s some mechanism in place to ensure that he can’t win the nomination without relatively broad support. If he falls short of the delegate majority, then I think there’s room for the anti-Trump faction to say, “See, a majority of Republicans want someone else!” Of course, then they have to agree on who that is!

  5. Yes, it’s a serious coordination problem — I don’t think they’re going to solve it, and in the end Trump will be nominated and, I think, the party establishment will just sit on its hands and make no effort to help elect him. A loss this year is less harmful to their interests than having Trump win the presidency and thus take real control of the party. In fact it would have the secondary benefit of teeing up another big midterm win for the GOP in 2018.

    But I also think that a party organization, having accidentally mis-designed or mis-scheduled its primaries to allow an outsider like Trump to come in and win them, needn’t necessarily treat that result as the will of its primary voters. I think it can legitimately say, “We just messed up here, we allowed too many candidates, we had too many (or too few) winner-take-all contests, we didn’t exercise enough control over the debates and the format,” etc., and Trump was the accidental result, a kind of emergent phenomenon. In effect, they corralled GOP voters into nominating him without anyone’s intending this — kind of a “party decides” scenario upside-down. So if they can still find an escape hatch, they’re doing what a party leadership should do, not somehow cheating their voters (though certainly some will see it that way, which will be damaging to them).

  6. Jeff – I don’t disagree with what you are saying. It’s the premise behind superdelegates, after all – they are there to protect the Democratic Party from “making a mistake”. The problem is that in correcting “the mistake”, there are always issues of legitimacy and popular will at stake.

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