Donald Trump’s dominant performance on Super Tuesday, which included victories in seven of 11 states, has prompted a swift and sudden shift in strategy among anti-Trump forces within the Republican Party. Rather than narrow the field, many now believe the only way to stop him is for the current candidates to stay in, deny Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, and force a contested convention in July.
“Many people had hoped one Trump alternative would emerge from Super Tuesday, and that simply did not happen. It's clear that the anti-Trump contingent is more fractured than ever,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who served as spokesperson to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. “There’s very little time left and it seems the attention has shifted toward an effort to stop him at the convention. ... It looks increasingly difficult to stop him before the convention.”
Under the new strategy, calls to narrow the field have given way to a push urging Republican candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich to stay in the race in order to scoop up enough delegates to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination.
With no clear nominee, there would be a contested convention in July. If no candidate secures 1,237 votes on the first ballot, many delegates obliged to vote for Trump would be free to back someone else on subsequent ballots, said Josh Putnam, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. The party hasn't faced a contested convention since 1976, and it was resolved on the first ballot, Putnam said.
During a blistering speech Thursday calling Trump “a fraud” who must not be president, Romney all but endorsed the strategy, encouraging major candidates to stay in the race and urging voters to back anyone but Trump.
“I know that some people want the race to be over. They look at history and say a trend like Mr. Trump's isn't going to be stopped. Perhaps. But the rules of political history have pretty much all been shredded during this campaign,” Romney said at the Hinckley Institute in Utah. “If the other candidates can find common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, this means that I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.”
Trump has 329 delegates, leading Cruz's 231, Rubio's 110 and Kasich's 25, according to an Associated Press tally. Given his broad base of support among voters—young and old, men and women, rich and poor, moderate and conservative—he's seen as unlikely to be overtaken by any candidate.
“At this point, it's very difficult to see anyone other than Trump having a path to 1,237 delegates,” said Dave Wasserman, a election analyst for the Cook Political Report. “That’s where the strategy has shifted.”
‘A Multi-Front War’
The new strategy to stop Trump hinges heavily on March 15, and requires victories by Rubio and Kasich in their winner-take-all home states—Florida awards 99 delegates and Ohio awards 66 delegates.
From there, a swath of states that award delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district—including Indiana, Missouri, and California—could create opportunities to keep Trump’s delegate count down. Wasserman argued that Rubio has the best shot at beating Trump in well-educated districts in California; Cruz is likeliest to best him in rural and evangelical regions in states like Indiana and Missouri; and Kasich has the best chance to defeat Trump in New England.
“It will require a multi-front war,” Wasserman said.
Rick Tyler, a former Cruz aide who recently left the campaign, argued that the Texan can still defeat Trump if others drop out soon. But short of that, “the only plausible scenario to stop Trump is to keep him from getting the requisite number of delegates and stop him from getting the nomination at the convention.”
“The problem with that is you’re going to have a revolt,” Tyler said. “That was the biggest problem with Romney’s speech.”
J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist and longtime Jeb Bush adviser who now supports Rubio, said he's urging all Republicans in the field to hold on until the bitter end in hopes Trump can be blocked in a contested convention.
“Everyone who has gotten delegates—even one—needs to go to the convention and try to stop Donald Trump,” Stipanovich said.
“The Republican Party is not going to come out of this in one piece and I think whoever the Republican nominee would be isn't going to win in November,” he said. “The situation here is fairly dire for our party and the country. ... People have to do what they are doing and continue to resist.”
Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who founded the anti-Trump group Our Principles PAC, agreed that the most viable strategy may be to defeat him at the convention. “Yes,” she wrote in an e-mail when asked about the strategy, adding: “#NeverTrump.”
The idea of trying to snag the nomination from Trump at the convention has already proven controversial on the right. Figures like Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox News's parent company 21 First Century Fox, and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos argue that the GOP should rally around Trump if he continues to lead the pack.
“Trump has earned the nomination,” Castellanos told the Washington Post Wednesday. “He won it, fair and square and we should respect that. Donald Trump whipped the establishment and it is too late for the limp GOP establishment to ask their mommy to step in and rewrite the rules because they were humiliated for their impotence.”
John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee, echoed Romney's criticisms of Trump in a statement on Thursday, and called on Republican voters “to think long and hard about who they want to be our next Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world.”
If there is a contested convention, the chances of chaos are high.
“Usually at this point in the race the party falls in line behind the presumptive nominee. But usually the presumptive nominee isn’t a dangerous loudmouth who could bring down other Republicans,” said Williams, the former Romney aide. “We’re really in uncharted waters where nobody knows how this is going to shake out. Anyone who tells you they know how this is going to shake out is lying.”
—With assistance from Terrence Dopp.