Charting a Course Around a Trump Nomination

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Mar 30, 2016 12:01 AM
Charting a Course Around a Trump Nomination

How can Donald Trump be stopped?

For months, conservatives have debated what Trump represents and whether they can or should support him. While millions of voters still have time to make their choice (and still need to be informed about his baleful record), among those pundits, politicians, activists, donors and strategists who've been hashing this out for a seeming eternity, that argument is over. Trump is either someone you can live with -- or celebrate -- as the standard-bearer of your cause and your party, or he isn't.

As I wrote last week, this is an insurmountable divide within the party and the conservative movement. That means it's a zero-sum contest. There will be winners and losers. Either Trump wins or #NeverTrump wins (that's the umbrella Twitter hashtag for a diverse coalition of conservatives who will never vote for the man). There's no compromise.

So if you're a #NeverTrumper, the debate now is all about the how.

The most desirable, but least plausible, way to stop Trump would be for Ted Cruz or John Kasich simply to beat him before the Republican convention in Cleveland. Unfortunately, Cruz would need to secure more than 80 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright. Kasich, the longtime candidate of math deniers, would need to capture a lot more than 100 percent.

The second-best, but more likely, scenario is to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates required to automatically win on the first ballot. Right now, that seems quite doable. Recently, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato projected the most likely scenario for Trump to get to 1,237. It required Trump to carry both Wisconsin and Indiana handily, and even then he only landed at 1,239. Right now, that looks unlikely. And if Trump loses just a couple congressional districts in Sabato's scenario, he'll fall short.

Most observers believe that if Trump can't reach the magic number, he'd hemorrhage support after each ballot at the convention, because delegates tend to be party regulars (and more and more delegates are released to vote their conscience after each round of voting).

That's why the margin of Trump's shortfall matters so much. If he comes just a few shy of 1,237, he could probably cut deals with a handful of delegates. Or he could horse-trade with Kasich, making the Ohio governor his running mate.

What's more important, however, is delegate psychology. Some argue, in defiance of the rules, that Trump should be the nominee even if he fails to reach 1,237. My Fox News colleague Sean Hannity says he "will support whoever gets the most delegates," which, given the math, means he will support Trump, no matter what.

That sentiment might be compelling with a narrow shortfall. But if Trump misses the mark by, say, 150 delegates, that would be significantly more than the delegate totals of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined. It's one thing to deny the trophy to the guy who finished a few yards shy of the finish line. It's another if he misses it by a mile. The bigger the shortfall, the easier it is to convince delegates that they are not defying the popular will by denying Trump, particularly given the widespread conviction that Trump would be crushed in a general election (with the GOP being torn apart in the process).

Cruz would be the most likely victor in a floor fight, but that isn't assured. The longer the balloting goes, the more likely it is that the bitter and bleary-eyed delegates will opt to order off-menu. That's what Kasich is allegedly counting on. But Kasich is widely disliked, and it might be a good deal easier to find a unifying candidacy in, say, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley or Mike Pence.

The third option is what Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol calls "Plan B." If the #NeverTrumpers fail to stop Trump at the convention, they could rally around an independent candidate. Who might that be? That's the billion-dollar question. Some want a true outsider like retired Marine General James Mattis. Others think Mitt Romney could leap into the breach. The path to an independent candidacy is perilous. But if you're of the opinion that Trump and Hillary Clinton aren't acceptable options, the perilous path is the only one available.