After Super Tuesday, Can the GOP Establishment Still Stop Trump?

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Donald Trump in Columbus, OH
Better just accept it. Photo: The Washington Post/2016 The Washington Post

Though they were not forced to literally stand behind Donald Trump as he discussed his takeover of the Republican Party, in a way every member of the GOP Establishment was Trump hostage Chris Christie on Super Tuesday. For the “never Trump” crowd, tonight’s results were preferable to the reality star sweeping every single contest, but not by much. As Trump solidified his front-runner status with wins in seven states, an obvious GOP challenger failed to emerge; Ted Cruz took Alaska, Oklahoma, and his home state of Texas, while Establishment favorite Marco Rubio only managed to win the Minnesota caucus. That means neither is likely to drop out, and even John Kasich can make an argument for staying in, since he finished a very close second in Vermont.

So with Trump barreling toward the nomination and neither Rubio nor Cruz in any position to stop him, what’s the Republican Party to do? No one’s really sure. Some pundits say it’s time for the Establishment to accept defeat and rally around an uncontrollable showman who may disagree with key elements of party ideology. Others say Republicans can still prevent Trump’s nomination, though that’s looking less and less plausible.

The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan V. Last was one of the few people arguing that Trump’s Super Tuesday wasn’t as impressive as it seems. He said Trump performed about as expected, and exposed one of his weaknesses:

The single most shocking number from Super Tuesday might have been this poll showing voter awareness about various aspects of Trump: Only 27 percent had heard about his reluctance to denounce David Duke and the KKK; 20 percent about Trump University and the fraud lawsuit; 13 percent about the failure of Trump Mortgage.

At some point, those numbers will all be at 90 percent because someone will spend a lot of money putting ads about them all over television in battleground states. The only question is whether it will be conservatives or Hillary Clinton who expose voters to this information. Either way, it suggests that Trump still has the potential for downward mobility if conservative donors are serious about stopping him.

Last concluded that, “given a little more time, some smartly-spent money, and some aggressive campaigning” Trump could be stopped. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted, 58 percent of GOP delegates will be awarded by March 15, so there’s limited time to pull off such an upset:

The theories about how Trump could be stopped have always entailed a big, fundamental change to the race — either a collapse of Trump’s support, or a consolidation of anti-Trump voters behind just one candidate.

But these two things keep not happening. And they didn’t happen on Super Tuesday. And if they don’t happen in the next two weeks, Trump is on track to win.

But that doesn’t mean a pundit can’t dream. Over at the Washington Post, Stephen Stromberg suggested that despite his campaign-salvaging wins, Cruz should drop out — or at least strike some kind of deal with Rubio:

It’s true that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did not even pass the 20 percent threshold in Texas, which means he will get no delegates at all from its big pile, and he failed to win Virginia, a state he put some last-minute time into. But he won the Minnesota caucuses, and, more importantly, by process of elimination he remains the candidate who could most plausibly draw on enough of the GOP’s various factions to mount a successful anti-Trump effort. Don’t count on him getting out before March 15.

Cruz’s strategy of activating movement conservatives, on the other hand, has failed in states across the South, where Trump peeled away evangelicals. Trump is winning on Cruz’s turf. Instead of proving that there is a wave of ideologically motivated far-right conservatives ready to wash across the country, Cruz’s campaign seems to have proven that much of the GOP base is shallow, motivated not so much by ideology as petty identity politics, rhetoric and personality. Besides, a lot of people simply do not like Cruz, because he is divisive and insufferably holier-than-thou. He is not a unifying candidate. But Cruz will not get out after Tuesday night, because he won a couple states.

It is plausible that Cruz and Rubio between them can deny Trump an outright majority of delegates before the convention and then deny Trump the GOP nomination on the floor. One of them would have to yield to the other — or both would have to yield to a non-candidate such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. But that strategy assumes a brutal delegate fight that would be difficult for anyone but the overall delegate leader to win with any legitimacy, giving Trump the upper hand.

Stromberg conceded it’s more likely that we’ll see Trump “break the Republican Party.” Fox News’ William Whalen said its actually not too late to stop Trump, but “it requires a lot of odd-shaped pieces to fall in place.” For instance, rather than narrowing the field, everyone should stay in:

The latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Poll played out such scenarios involving Trump versus Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The results? Rubio lost by six points; Cruz, by 13.

Assuming Rubio soldiers on past the March 15 vote in Florida, he and Cruz need to strike an accord: they don’t attack each other; their super PACs stick it to Trump. And they draw straws to decide who has to call Jeb Bush to ask for his super PAC join in the Trump-bashing.

Syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Jonah Goldberg takes this unholy alliance a step further, suggesting a Rubio-Cruz ticket ala Reagan-Bush in 1980. I’m not sure it’s in Cruz’s DNA to be so magnanimous, since he leads Rubio in states won and delegates earned.

Even if Rubio or Cruz, or Rubio and Cruz, can’t win outright, they could prevent Trump from obtaining the 1,237 delegates needed to cinch the nomination. Slate’s Jim Newell said this is basically the only strategy the Establishment has left. So would it work? Eh, probably not:

Even if some contests allocate delegates proportionately starting March 15, most of them don’t. They simply do not. So Trump would win most winner-take-all states with pluralities in a field split between Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich. Even if the field did winnow to a one-on-one, Trump would probably still win enough of those contests to secure a majority. This is what it means to be a dominating front-runner: You’ve closed off all paths for your challengers.

Even if either the all-in or one-on-one strategies for denying Trump a majority of delegates somehow worked, few seem to have considered what happens next. Suppose Donald Trump gets close to a majority of delegates—and well beyond Rubio—but some sort of establishment convention coup goes down and magically installs Rubio as the nominee. Do the plotters believe that this will go over well with Trump supporters? Trump wouldn’t be the one destroying the Republican Party in that case. 

Fox News contributor Edward Rollins said Trump is now “unstoppable.” All the GOP can do is decide whether it’s with him or against him:

What’s ahead is a Republican Party that either becomes part of his movement or splinters into many pieces. No matter what Trump does or says, the nomination is his for the taking.

And according to USA Today’s editorial board, it would be in the best interests of both the party and the nation if Republicans reject Trump, and take this time to think about what they’ve done.

The best course for most Republicans would be to distance themselves from Trump and to ponder why he has done so well.

For decades, the party has courted working-class voters and stoked their passions. But the GOP has also taken these voters for granted, often focusing on tax and regulatory issues championed by corporate lobbyists. Trump’s populist nationalism has channeled the anger at elites and tapped into the dissatisfaction of those who feel left behind by globalization and social change.

On Super Tuesday, the GOP race officially went from source of entertainment to something much more ominous.

Can the GOP Establishment Still Stop Trump?