Beneath the nightmarish qualities of this year’s Republican presidential nominating process for the people accustomed to controlling it is a scenario that’s not a bad substitute for the Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio cakewalks so many expected. If Ted Cruz and John Kasich can together keep Donald Trump from winning a majority of delegates before Cleveland — and that remains something like a 50/50 proposition — then a “contested convention” will ensue that could produce the greatest surprise since Wendell Willkie stampeded the 1940 conclave. Indeed, it’s a scenario wherein liberated second-ballot delegates might settle on an Establishment favorite like Kasich or Paul Ryan, or — hey, let your imagination run wild and think of every recent GOP pol who’s made movers and shakers and Beltway pundits swoon: Mitch Daniels! Rob Portman! John Thune!
There’s a big problem with such scenarios, however, and it transcends the unilateral threats Donald Trump is making about the disturbances and defections his followers might generate if he is denied the nomination. A more basic reality is that together Trump and Cruz are likely to command a solid majority of delegates going to Cleveland, even if neither of them has a majority on his own. And if they choose to deny any other candidates a shot at the nomination, they can almost certainly do so.
Their most direct means of control is via convention rules. And as Politico’s Kyle Cheney reports today, the two camps are already talking about working together to make it a “two-man race” to the very end:
Advisers to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz say there’s no way they’ll allow John Kasich to even compete at a contested national convention — let alone prevail.
Trump and Cruz are betting that their dual dominance in the delegate hunt will permanently box out the Ohio governor, who has no mathematical path to the nomination and is openly pursuing a floor fight at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. And their aides say Kasich won’t even make it to the floor.
“There is virtually zero chance he can even be nominated,” Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican national committeeman who’s advising Cruz on his convention strategy, told POLITICO. “It’s a two-man race.”
Their confidence is rooted in the fact that Trump and Cruz are nearly certain to control the lion’s share of the 2,472 delegates participating in the July convention. Together, they’ve earned more than 1,000 delegate slots to Kasich’s 136. And those delegates will ultimately approve the rules that govern a contested convention.
One possible means for excluding Kasich is the famous 2012 rule, enacted to thwart a discordant Ron Paul faction in Tampa, that a candidate must have a majority of eight delegations in hand before her or his name can even be placed in nomination. That would take care not only of Kasich (barring some late-primary pyrotechnics) but any dark horse as well. But the more abiding reality is that a convention makes its own rules, and so long as Trump and Cruz control a majority and continue to work together to force a “two-man race,” they can do so.
That’s probably true even if there are a significant number of "false flag" delegates who don’t really support the candidate to whom they are bound on the first ballot. They are free to vote as they wish on procedural matters such as the rules. But it’s hard to imagine there will be enough of them to overcome the combined forces of loyal Trump and Cruz delegates. And for that matter, if you had to figure who will be most successful in "stealing" delegates prior to Cleveland, it will probably be Cruz with his well-organized campaign, not the inchoate forces of the anti-Cruz/anti-Trump Establishment.
Probably the best strategy for the Establishment short of taking the plunge for Cruz will be to play one of the front-runners off against the other. It’s certainly questionable that Cruz and Trump will be able to cooperate in Cleveland if it becomes clear their united front tilts the playing field toward one of them and away from the other. But if it is to their mutual advantage to seal off any path to the nomination for anyone else, they will very likely have the power to do so, both procedurally through control of the convention rules, and psychologically because of the millions of voters they will represent. Sorry, John Kasich; sorry, John Thune. Sorry, Republican Establishment dreamers.