By Daniel Twining*
It was only weeks ago that Donald Trump appeared unstoppable in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States. Although he had hardly won a majority of Republican voters in any state, his competitors were carving up the preponderant anti–Trump voting bloc in ways that allowed the tycoon to win primary elections in every part of the country, often with the support of only one in three voters. That strategy worked ingeniously when the Republican field was heavily populated by competing presidential aspirants. Now that the field has narrowed down to only three finalists, the intense opposition to Trump within Republican ranks has mobilised behind his two remaining competitors, probably blocking his path to victory.
Senator Ted Cruz, a conservative running a traditional campaign based on mobilising social conservatives and building extensive grass–roots operations in key states, recently has won a string of victories, accumulating delegates at a rate that likely will prevent Trump from amassing the 1237 he needs to secure the Republican nomination at the party’s July convention in Cleveland. Cruz’s talent, discipline, ground game and appeal to traditional Republican constituencies help explain his success. But, independents and establishment Republicans question his character and his ability to appeal to moderate voters, raising warning signs about his ability to win in November.
Also, effectively denying Donald Trump the delegate count he needs to secure the Republican nomination is Ohio Governor John Kasich, whose pivotal victory in his home state last month gave him the momentum to stay in the race. Upcoming primary elections in a string of eastern states could allow their more moderate voters to propel his candidacy. Kasich cannot mathematically accrue enough delegates to be nominated for president at the party convention on the first ballot. But, he is the only Republican still in the race who polls show beats Hillary Clinton decisively in the general election.
If Republicans are playing to win the White House, that advantage matters. Kasich represents the governing wing of the Republican Party, has been an effective governor of a major state and a ranking Member of Congress, and is a sensible internationalist, not an isolationist. He could plausibly assemble a winning coalition in the general election that would put in play key swing states where moderate voters determine the victor and encompass Republicans, independent voters (Mitt Romney won them against Barack Obama in 2012), and Democrats who oppose a Clinton restoration.
The fact that none of these candidates is likely to secure the requisite delegates to win the nomination for president in the first round of voting at the Republican convention this summer is most harmful to Trump. He needs to win some 60 percent of votes in upcoming state primary elections to control a winning slate of delegates at the convention, a tall order.
Should Trump’s nomination in the first round of convention voting not secure 1237 votes, the balloting will then go into multiple rounds in which many delegates pledged to vote for him in the first round will become “unbound,” or free to vote for other candidates. The question then becomes whether many of these delegates move to Cruz, who will come into the convention as the runner-up to Trump — or whether, because Cruz abhors the Republican establishment many of these delegates have spent their lives being part of, they throw their support to a third candidate.
As a lifelong member of the Republican establishment and the last man standing in this election against the anti–establishment candidates, Governor Kasich will have a powerful claim to be the non–Trump, non-Cruz alternative. But, the fact that Kasich has only won the state of Ohio to date would raise fundamental questions for many delegates about the merits of elevating him over Trump and Cruz, who look likely by that time to have won most of the state primaries.
The most intriguing possibility then becomes whether Republicans, after multiple rounds of voting at their convention in which none of the candidates currently running secures the 1237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination, instead nominate someone not currently in the race. The most likely candidate in this category had been Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Mitt Romney’s running mate for vice president in the 2012 election.
Ryan is one of the few elected leaders who enjoy support across the Republican Party spectrum — encompassing social conservatives, libertarians, business leaders, foreign policy hawks, and Tea–Party activists. In a Republican party wracked by tribal warfare, he has managed to rise above the fray. He is a generation younger than Hillary Clinton, which matched with his likeability and reform conservatism gives him a claim to represent the future rather than the past she invokes. The Clinton campaign was worried by the prospect of running against him — and relieved by his announcement on April 12 that he would not accept the party’s nomination for President this year. This sets the stage for Ryan to help protect his party’s Congressional majorities and rebuild the Republican brand in the event of a loss by Trump or Cruz in the November elections.
Indeed, scenarios in which someone other than the current Republican front–runners secures the nomination after this extraordinary primary campaign, may be no more than an establishment Republican’s dream. Even if the party managed to wrest control from the forces of Trump and Cruz at the convention, these men and their followers will not simply yield. Cruz at least has the incentive to play a long game: he is young, talented, and ambitious. Even if he comes up short at the end, history suggests that he could well be his party’s likely nominee in the future — just as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all lost their initial primary campaigns before emerging in future cycles as their party’s standard–bearer.
Trump is the wild card. He has shown little political loyalty, having been a registered Democrat, a registered Republican, and donating lavishly to candidates of both political parties. He is unlikely to do what is best for the Republican Party. He will do what is best for Donald Trump. This could mean running as a third–party candidate, since anything less would be to disenfranchise the millions of Americans who have voted for him. An independent Trump candidacy would split the Republican vote and allow Clinton to win a decisive general election victory she would otherwise not have earned. He could also cost Republicans their majorities in both houses of Congress.
Western civilisation may yet be saved by a Republican Party leadership determined to deny Trump their party’s nomination. But, no one has yet figured out how to save the Republican Party itself. Doing so would require winning in November against a Democratic candidate whose bizarre inability to dispatch an aging, left–wing rival reflects deep vulnerabilities which Republicans should be exploiting on a course to victory, were they not so intent on insulating their party from the choices of its own voters.
*Daniel Twining is a Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a former official of the George W. Bush administration and a veteran of every Republican presidential campaign since 2000.