It’s now increasingly clear that Donald Trump is losing control of delegates pledged to vote for him on the first ballot but who will become unbound on a second or third if he’s not nominated right away. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe estimates that he’s already lost 130 to 170 second-ballot votes to Ted Cruz, and that’s with a lot more to lose in state and local conventions in the next few weeks. Thus, even in TrumpLand, it’s being acknowledged that his campaign has become a first-ballot-or-bust proposition.
If Trump wins 1,237 bound delegate votes as the primary season ends on June 7, all of the speculation about a “contested convention” will become moot, and instead the political world will discuss whether and under what circumstances the GOP can unite around its unlikely nominee. If he falls just short of 1,237, you can expect Trump and his surrogates to alternate between blandishments aimed at unbound delegates and threats of what will happen if he is denied the nomination. One popular benchmark is that he needs 1,100 or more delegates to enter the twilight zone where he would probably — but not certainly — win on the first ballot.
But if he fails to get across the line, that’s it; there is virtually no scenario where Trump wins once “his” delegates are unbound. There’s been much speculation about what the Donald might do then, whether it’s an indie “spoiler” run or simply a return to reality TV; a distinct minority view is that he might be a good team player and loyally support the ticket. But what would he do in Cleveland in those critical moments after it becomes certain he will not be the nominee? Encourage protests by his enraged supporters on the dubious grounds that the plurality leader in bound delegates or popular votes ought to be entitled to the prize? Or something a bit more proactive?
It’s often forgotten that even if he falls short on the first ballot and even if he loses a few hundred delegates on the second or third ballots once they are unbound, Trump is still going to have a sizable bloc of loyal delegates at his command, almost certainly more than anyone other than Ted Cruz. What does he tell them to do? Help put Lyin’ Ted Cruz over the top? Or help anti-Cruz forces at the convention stop the Texan on the second and third ballots and create new options?
In all likelihood, by July Trump will have said enough about the cabal of Establishment types hoping to overturn the judgment of primary and caucus voters that he would not be able to join such a cabal himself. But on the other hand, if his and his followers’ frustrations are relentlessly concentrated on Cruz as a delegate thief, Trump might come around to the claim that any outcome is better than the nomination of the Father of Lies himself. If that happens, all sorts of bets could be off, including the tacit Trump/Cruz alliance in defending Rule 40(b) to keep other contenders out of the race. And beyond that looms the strangest scenario of all: Donald Trump as the kingmaker or king-breaker of a Republican convention, holding a crucial bloc of delegates he could use as a bargaining chip for whatever infernal demands he chooses to make.