Ted Cruz is headed to Pittsburgh this week where he will focus on shoring up support ahead of the Keystone State’s April 26 primary. It’s a smart play from a campaign that has demonstrated remarkable strategic competence. Cruz’s maneuver will keep the nation’s focus on his skillful outmaneuvering of Donald Trump in the process of amassing loyal delegates to the Republican nominating convention.
This offense to Trump’s considerable ego is such that he appears utterly incapable of moving on and forcing the press to shift its focus to the April 19 contest in New York. The Empire State’s primary is a delegate-rich contest that will yield Trump a slew of newly committed delegates and will inevitably shift the national political narrative back to Trump’s inevitability. Indeed, following Cruz’s sweeping victory in Wisconsin, the GOP’s anti-Trump forces appear to have succumbed to a bit of irrational exuberance. Yes, the prospect of a contested convention is more likely than ever, but not inevitable. Even in the best of circumstances for this cohort of Republicans – that is, a series of ballots that eventually produce a nominee who is not Donald Trump – their foe will not have been entirely vanquished. In such a scenario, he might, in fact, become stronger than ever.
The very notion that the GOP has an energized and organized anti-Trump wing speaks to the celebrity candidate’s dominance. The party is now bifurcated along sectarian lines defined by either antipathy toward or the embrace of the one-time reality television star. If, however, Donald Trump heads to the convention without the requisite 1,237 delegates, it appears increasingly likely that he will be unable to make up the difference – even if that difference is only modest. As many have noted, the convention delegates are local party loyalists with as much or more invested in November’s down ballot races as the White House. They can read a poll, and they know that a Trump nomination would yield a rout for the Republican column, from the U.S. Senate to county commissioner. If Trump fails to win the nomination on the first ballot, it is reasonable to assume now that the forces arrayed against him on the convention floor will likely be insurmountable. For Trump, it’s ballot one or bust.
Such an outcome would probably suit the real estate mogul just fine. The celebrity candidate is never more comfortable than when he can project a sense of victimhood. If you believe such things, the account of former Trump strategist and prominent defector Stephanie Cegielski suggests that the unlikely presidential candidate never had any intention of becoming the Republican Party’s nominee. Instead, his campaign was a lark designed to enhance his personal and business brands, and their most optimistic initial projection was that Trump would come in second in the delegate count. From the candidate’s perspective, the opportunity to feign great injury at the hands of ill-defined forces within the “establishment” GOP is as good an outcome as they could have hoped for at the campaign’s outset.
For many of Trump’s core supporters, the virtue conferred by their perceived victimization at the hands of vague but omnipresent forces invested in their failure is an intoxicating conception. As studies have revealed, many Trump supporters do not believe they have a voice in the political system. From free trade agreements to tax code-based incentives for producers, Trump’s core supporters see themselves as pawns in a system designed to secure the privileges of the already privileged. Their sense of victimization is acute, and Trump being “robbed” of the nomination he failed to win outright would legitimize, vindicate, and harden this self-perception. More portentously, the idea that Trump was cheated out of that which was his due will be aggressively promoted in the press.
In the event he fails to win the party’s nomination, there are those who foresee Trump making an effort to scuttle the GOP’s political prospects by mounting a quixotic third-party bid, but that is highly unlikely. The obstacles before Trump in his effort to get on the ballot, which may be successful in just a handful of states and only after vast sums of Trump’s personal wealth are spent, are prohibitive enough to preclude such an outcome. If Trump wanted the nomination, he would have invested in a campaign apparatus designed to secure it. He did not. His campaign has always been a ploy for earned media, and he has been curiously successful in that objective. If Trump were to fail to win the nomination, he would become not merely a celebrity and a political phenomenon, but a celebrity and a political phenomenon with a righteous grievance to litigate. That’s heady stuff, and the political press would cover Trump the Pretender with the same vigor they applied to Trump the Usurper. If he emerges from the convention without the nomination, the Manhattan real estate heir will become a fixture in the press, perhaps even more so than he is today. And he’ll be a useful tool, too, because his mission will be to undermine the GOP’s political position.
In the immediate wake of a convention loss for Trump, nothing will so preoccupy the GOP as the prospect of reconciliation and reunification. That might seem a daunting, unpalatable, or even undesirable project in the heat of a primary campaign, but the party will need at least nine of every ten registered Republican voters to back the party’s nominee if they are to win the White House. That reconciliation process will be frustrated by Trump, but also by the Democratic Party. Their efforts to brand the GOP “The Party of Trump” will not end merely because the celebrity candidate’s name will not grace the top of the ticket. They will seek to tar the GOP as the party of towering and unrealizable border walls, mass deportations, a ban on Muslims, and punishments for women who seek abortions. They will brand the Republican Party an institution dedicated to misogyny and racial resentment.
Hillary Clinton and her allies will complicate the process of reintegrating Trump-curious GOP voters by seeking to label their one-time affinity for this candidate evidence of their toxicity. Democrats will not merely try to make the party’s eventual nominee in 2016 a radioactive entity, but they will also label any affiliation with a certain segment of the GOP voting base a toxic association. Even if unity between the pro and anti-Trump factions of the party is largely unsuccessful, the Democratic campaign will seek to instill in the general electorate a fear of Trump’s voters and what they stand for. For his part, the ubiquitous Trump will aid Democrats in their effort to nurture in his supporters an irreconcilable bitterness toward the GOP.
Of course, Trump may still end up the Republican nominee, even if he fails to win the nomination outright. In that eventuality, none of this will come to pass. For the Republican Party, that’s arguably an even more unattractive outcome than a rupture of the sort envisioned above. If, however, the party rescues its identity from the jaws of Trump, their struggles are only just beginning. From the minute the curtain closes on Cleveland to the second that the polls close on November 8, the party will be engaged in a bitter struggle. Not until 2017 can there be a genuine reckoning with Trump, his supporters in the grassroots and in the entertainment complex, and the issues his candidacy elevated to prominence. The GOP will be truly fortunate to emerge whole from this schismatic moment. Neither Trump, nor the Democrats, nor the press will make that outcome an easy one.