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Trump vs. #NeverTrump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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What explains Donald Trump's apparent polling surge in the last several days? If it is real, it appears to be linked to his victories in South Carolina and Nevada, since the few up-to-date polls we have mostly precede his performance in last Thursday's debate. It’s possible he could have fallen back over the weekend -- in which case he could lose several states

If he indeed has a commanding lead, however, he could accumulate a lot of delegates on Tuesday. (Delegate allocation in most Super Tuesday states isn't really proportional; it rewards the winner and penalizes the other candidates, especially if someone wins by a substantial margin. ) This would occur just as he is finally facing strong resistance from some Republican activists, conservative media outlets and politicians. They are pledging to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate if Trump is nominated. The most visible Republican to sign on to #NeverTrump so far is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.

The question is whether they will come crawling back if Trump is nominated (and it's still quite likely he won't be). Normally, the pressure to stick with the party's presidential choice is strong for party actors, no matter what reservations they may have about that person. If Republican politicians and other leaders tell voters to oppose the nominee but to support other Republicans on the ballot, voters might just stay home, thus dooming the party's overall results.

Another reason for party actors to support the nominee is that they can usually bring him or her around to supporting the party's positions on the issues that matter. In 2008 and 2012, some Republican leaders and activists were suspicious at first of John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively.

But social conservatives, to cite one bloc of party actors, had strong incentives to back the two men to secure support for their own candidates, both in the future as well as in those campaign years. Even if a group doesn't get the nominee it wants, it still can influence what the winner would do if he or she is elected president. By the time they were nominated, both McCain and Romney were fully on board with conservative positions supported by the party. They headed a united Republican Party. 

In Trump's case, however, there’s no indication he would support the agenda of what has been the Republican majority coalition if he is nominated, since he will have defeated it and its candidate, Marco Rubio. Nor is there any reason to be confident he'll support other Republicans in the future. 

For historical reference, you have to go back to the Democrats in the 1970s. In 1972, George McGovern won a narrow victory as a factional candidate against a badly fraying majority coalition, and failed to unify the party in the general election. In 1976, the Democrats accepted a factional candidate, Jimmy Carter, once he had won the nomination. He was elected, but they did not remain loyal to him, leading in 1980 to one of the strongest insurrections against a previously nominated president in U.S. history.

So in 2016, many but not all of the normal incentives pushing parties to unify won't apply if Trump is nominated. This leaves top Republicans with a difficult choice -- and strong reasons to pull out the stops to defeat Trump before he grabs the nomination.  

  1. Rules vary by state, and are complicated. See Frontloading HQ for the details. I argued last week Trump might find it hard to expand his support beyond his core supporters. This isn't because he has a fixed ceiling, but because those who hadn’t yet bought what he was selling were unlikely to do so now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net