June 18, 2016
You’re starting to hear some loud whispers about an attempt to overthrow Donald Trump at the Republican convention. Like many dreams of the #NeverTrump faction, it’s technically possible and highly unlikely. The mechanism to toss out the primary/caucus results exists. Delegate commitments based on results, even on a first ballot, are only binding if the convention says they are.
Whether this is fair or just is a matter of opinion, but RNC bylaws and historical precedent allow the convention rules committee to do whatever they damn well please. Though Trump has the majority of currently pledged delegates, as we regularly heard back when Ted Cruz mattered, it doesn’t mean all of the “Trump” delegates would pick him on a first ballot if given the opportunity to choose otherwise.
A convention coup d’etat is not outside the realm of possibility. However, it’s also unprecedented. No American candidate has ever entered a major party candidate with earned delegates in excess of the quantity needed for nomination and failed to secure the crown. Two months ago, Republicans were worried about angering Trumpists if he lost out without reaching 1237 delegates. How angry would they get now?
There’s also that small matter of not having a replacement candidate. Picking any of Trump’s 16 vanquished foes would be a tough sell. Though this is different than running as a conservative independent, Bill Kristol proved completely unable to locate anyone willing to fall on the sword for that effort, indicating a shortage of interested candidates.
As much as the delegates might fear an impending Trump disaster at the polls, pulling down swing state senators and kicking away the House, they would need to settle on an alternative. With many of those potential options having endorsed Trump, it gets more tricky. Sure, some prospect could pull back their endorsement (as it seems like half the party is threatening to), but it’s awkward, and you can see the Clinton ads showing the new GOP standard bearer previously endorsing Trump.
So what would it take? What would have to change between now and Cleveland to get a majority of delegates to take an unprecedented if legal step into the abyss? Keep in mind, you don’t try a coup if you aren’t pretty sure you can pull it off. Attempting to depose The Donald and failing would make Republicans look ridiculous and ineffectual, while still saddling them with Trump as a nominee. You know, what happened in April, but worse.
There are three groups of Republicans, each of whom will have representation on the convention floor. Trumpists, about a third of the primary vote (his core support) and a mere 12% or so of the national electorate. There are plenty of delegates who are all about The Donald, but not anywhere near a majority. They can raise a stink, but will not be a majority, not on the rules committee, not overall.
Then you have conservative activists, those who have given years to the party on state and local levels. Many, though not all, were Cruz supporters and wound up getting chosen from a Ted-approved slate. Some are actually pledged to Cruz on a first ballot, others were his Trojan Horses for second/third ballots.
The final third is what you would consider the party establishment side. Some of these delegates are quite conservative, others more moderate. Had they rallied around a single candidate earlier in the process, things would have turned out very differently. When Cruz was the leading #NeverTrump choice, they wavered, giving Trump a chance to start winning majorities.
They and the voters they represent are among the most fickle. They’d prefer to keep the party from crumbling and want to protect the House majority while hoping to salvage the Senate. Many of the senior political figures belonging to this group have endorsed Trump, however uncomforably. The others aren’t very well represented among the delegate pool. The famous people in this group are either very uneasy like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or staying away from Cleveland like Mitt Romney and the Bush Family.
In order to pull off the unexpected, both non-Trumpist groups would need to decide anybody, and I mean anybody but Trump was preferable. This means conservative activists would take Romney and party types would take Cruz. The ultimate choice is likely neither of those, but they would need to enter the process willing to put up with just about anyone.
A few things could make these groups desperate enough to give in, compromise, and otherwise put their convention votes in the hands of fate, in a way they weren’t willing to a couple months ago:
Polling for House races would get worse. A recent generic ballot survey had Democrats up 11 points. That’s dangerous. Republicans have a built in edge due to the last round of redistricting. There are a good amount of 80-90% Democratic districts in major cities, so Democrats could win a small majority of congressional votes and still fail to gain a House majority.
But 11 points would give Democrats control of everything. We’ll see a couple more surveys in the next month. If this isn’t a fluke, and the average result is in the 11 to 15 point range, the same cautious, protective pols who didn’t want to upset things a few weeks ago will begin to think any non-Trump outcome is better than sinking with him.
When they endorsed Trump, the idea was not wanting to get blamed for President Clinton 2.0. At that point, they’d want to avoid blame for Clinton + Democratic Congress.
Several GOP senators are vulnerable. Mark Kirk of Illinois is considered a goner. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin is an underdog. Florida looks difficult, even if Marco Rubio decides to play. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire is vulnerable. Pat Toomey in Pennyslvania and Rob Portman in Ohio are looking over their shoulders.
If Ayotte, Toomey and Portman are each trailing by several points, while other, safer incumbents like Richard Burr in North Carolina and John McCain are trailing, it would become very difficult to argue Trump isn’t having a negative effect on down ballot races. As of today, Republicans can still talk themselves into a scenario where they hold the Senate. A few unfavorable polls between now and mid-July could pop that bubble.
It would require more. Trump is already at a 70% unfavorable number in the most recent ABC/Washington Post poll. Even with that, he’s only trailing Clinton by single digits in most polls. The current Real Clear Politics average has them separated by 5.8 points. As unpopular as Trump is, Clinton only exceeded 45% in one of the eight most recent national surveys.
While you can argue if Trump is this close, a decent candidate would find themselves ahead, the gap is narrow enough for non-Trumpist delegates to think he has a chance. Reuters surveyed voters before and after Orlando. The attack seems to have helped Trump pick up a couple points. It’s not difficult for delegates to talk themselves into thinking another attack + economic slowdown would be enough to get Trump elected.
At the moment, his RCP average is 38.3%. That’s miserable, but not bad enough. Wavering delegates would need to see him consistently in the 33-35% range, with Clinton in the mid-upper 40s. This is the single biggest impediment to the stop Trump scenario. Hillary Clinton might be just unappealing enough to keep Trump within range, no matter what he does.
It’s hard to imagine Trump could have a much worse few weeks than he just did, and that merely brought him from even to trailing by several points. Even if his base of support is insanely small, there may be enough other voters who are resolutely opposed to Clinton and don’t believe in tossing away votes on a third party candidate to keep Trump polling in the mid-upper 30s.
Unless he takes another dip, in conjunction with worsening news in down ballot polls, the idea of throwing Trump overboard is no more realistic than David French’s presidential prospects were. It’s a neat thought, and a majority of Republicans would likely prefer a different nominee at this point, but conditions need to worsen a full additional level to make it a legitimate possibility.