Yesterday, I raised the possibility that the Republican Party has split into two incompatible parties living inside a single body. One Republican Party is traditionally conservative and has been unable to settle on a nominee from among Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and a host of governors who long ago left the scene. The other Republican Party is reactionary, obstructionist and supports Donald Trump for president. Because these two parties share a common organizational structure and therefore can only nominate one candidate, at some point the preferences of their two groups of voters are going to clash. Let’s take a minute to consider how this may play out.
After Super Tuesday, Donald Trump is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republication nomination. The primary contest would be over had any of the candidates on the conservative side won New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, then followed up with a dominating Super Tuesday performance. Likewise, the historic turnout figures we’re seeing in almost every Republican primary would be an early indicator of success in November if Republicans were a single party and could coalesce around their candidate. But Donald Trump is an unacceptable choice for party elites who fear he will cost Republicans the Senate and possibly the House in addition to the White House, or who doubt his loyalty to conservative economic or social principles, or who fear he will do lasting damage to the party because of his nativist appeal, or all of the above. Some of these individuals are on the ballot and fear being pulled down by Trump if he faces a backlash from the general electorate. But the failure of the conservative side to produce a nominee with sufficient appeal to match Trump has left these party leaders with no viable options.
With a growing delegate lead and nationwide appeal to an energized reactionary base, Trump is in a favorable position to win the nomination outright. At this moment, no other candidate can say that. Ted Cruz is entrenched in second place with the portion of the primary calendar he was supposed to dominate winding down and in any event has no appeal to the conservative side of the party and is almost as problematic to Republican elites as Trump. Marco Rubio, now 1-14 following his caucus win in Minnesota, is staging an uphill battle to win his home state of Florida. John Kasich will try to make it home to Ohio. None of these candidates appear to have enough strength to prevent a Trump nomination, although it is possible that collectively they could still amass more than half the total available delegates and prevent a first ballot Trump victory at the Republican Convention this summer in Cleveland. Right now, that’s Establishment Plan A.
Then what? Well, then you have a hung convention. Not a brokered convention necessarily, because that requires brokers. This isn’t 1948 or even 1968; no one is magically standing behind the curtain to orchestrate the outcome. The more likely result is chaos. There are good reasons why parties want to arrive at their conventions unified and prepared for the general election, why the primary process is designed to wrap up early and provide time to heal campaign wounds. Divided conventions portend acrimony and the real possibility of general election failure. That Republican elites are hoping for this outcome is a measure of how threatened they are by Trump.
But even if party leaders get their wish and Trump goes to Cleveland without a majority, what happens next? Would a “consensus” conservative candidate – a Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney – emerge to win the support of the delegates not invested in Trump on a second or third or thirtieth ballot? And if a compromise candidate did emerge, how would it look to Trump’s supporters if the party elites who are the target of their wrath were to deny Trump the nomination in what would certainly look like a power grab? Are we to believe they will forgive, forget and rally around an establishment-backed choice? Are we to believe that Trump will quietly disappear? Does Donald Trump do anything quietly?
The process could of course take an unexpected turn. A candidate who suspended his campaign could reemerge with surprising appeal to both sides of the reactionary/conservative divide. Trump could successfully convince party elites that he is not a threat to their survival, or party leaders could reach a point of resignation and acceptance and learn to love Donald Trump. But these possibilities seem like wishful thinking. It is difficult at this point to see how the resolution of the Republican nomination process will not be shaped by the conservative/reactionary divisions in the party. The desires of these two groups are irreconcilable, but because they inhabit the same organization it is almost inevitable that one of them will be denied their nominee, and after Super Tuesday is has become increasingly likely that the conservative power structure is on the losing side. They are finding that there is little they can do about this, but the survival of their party as they know it is on the line. This may not end well.