The anti-Donald Trump brigade is banking on defeating him this week in Ohio, and possibly Florida, paving the way for an “open” convention that would deny him the Republican presidential nomination and avoid what it believes would be a general election debacle.
This is an uphill climb under any scenario and probably impossible if Trump wins both states on Tuesday. If the strategy works, however, it could create an even more perilous outcome.
But Republicans, from establishment politicians to conservative activists to big-money types, are more rattled than ever by the New York billionaire; several respected polls suggest Trump as the nominee would be an electoral nightmare, threatening to take down lots of Republicans.
Thus the chatter and strategizing for an open convention where Trump would come in with a plurality but not a majority. This requires a multicandidate field.
Moreover, any open convention that shuns Trump could be a nightmare with no clear alternative. If a protracted struggle requires looking outside the contestants for a nominee, the odds-on favorite would be House Speaker Paul Ryan, which would create its own frictions.
The stop-Trump movement knows that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the right-wing favorite and only slightly more palatable to the establishment than Trump, has the financial and political support to stick it out for the long haul. They hope one of the others, probably Ohio Governor John Kasich wins Tuesday and goes on.
Trump continues to win contests – 15 of 25 so far – and insists that he’ll easily beat Hillary Clinton in the fall. But his general election weaknesses are glaring.
He’s running well behind her in polls this month by Washington Post/ABC News and Wall Street Journal/NBC News. More alarming to Republicans, in the Post/ABC survey only 27 percent of voters rated Trump as honest, 10 points less than Clinton on an issue that is her Achilles’ heel. In the Journal/NBC poll, Trump got a 64 percent negative rating from all voters compared with only a 25 percent positive. That 39-point net negative is territory previously reached only by politicians such as Richard Nixon during impeachment.
Although the plethora of anti-Trump ads from outside groups haven’t won rave reviews, plans are underway for a bigger campaign to get more attention when primaries don’t dominate the news; from March 23 to April 19, there is only one nominating contest.
Trump, despite his victories, is winning less than 45 percent of the delegates. If that continues, he would go to the Cleveland convention in July with fewer than 1,100 delegates, well short of the 1,237 necessary to be nominated. Cruz might have more than 800, and others about 400. The rest are uncommitted.
By party rules, almost all delegates are bound to the candidate on the first ballot, but that requirement is sharply reduced on any second ballot and subsequent tallies. A number of these delegates will be selected at the party state conventions and won’t be controlled by the candidates after the initial ballot.
It’s reasonable to expect Trump then would peak on the first ballot. But the question that the plotters can’t answer easily is: Then what? It’s hard to imagine giving the nomination to someone who finished second or a distant third,
There are no good alternatives. Mitt Romney is a non-starter, as he would be unacceptable to Trump and Cruz factions. There are no senators or governors who would be a credible consensus candidate.
Thus the most likely might be Ryan, who will be the chairman of the convention. After two or three ballots, he may be the only one who could get 1,237 delegates.
But imagine the anger of the loyalists of Trump, Cruz and others who went through the long slog to get there if they are suddenly forced to hand it over to a white knight who did none of the dirty work. It would be a zoo and Trump likely would stoke the anger.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.