Tight-lipped.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A Convention Coup Endangers Republican Party

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

There are three plausible outcomes awaiting the Republican Party at its July convention in Cleveland. Each scenario offers a unique, unhappy-family style of misery to its members.

Trump Wins

This still seems to me, as of April 6, the most likely outcome. To date, Trump has acquired 743 delegates, Cruz has won 517 delegates and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who appears to be playing a different sport on a distant field, has 143.

The American system of elections is not immutable. It has changed considerably over the years. Sometimes the changes are huge -- as when constituents began directly electing their U.S. senators or when women gained the vote. Sometimes, they're relatively small, as when Nebraska changed its formula for apportioning the state's electoral votes.

However, one theme runs consistently through American history: The candidate with the most votes wins, just as in sports, where the team with the most points wins. Sometimes it's a lucky shot that puts you in the winner's circle. Sometimes it's an electoral college majority trumping the popular vote. But one way or another, you need the most points to win the game.

Trump will almost certainly have the most points heading to Cleveland. It may be well and proper, under party rules, to deny him the nomination. It will also be widely considered -- by his supporters, above all -- as undemocratic, un-American and crooked. As political conventions go, this one would be a doozy.

Cruz Wins

One scenario might mitigate much of the negative fallout of bypassing Trump. If Trump continues his erratic ways, his campaign maintains its apparent dysfunction and Cruz increases his vote share in the primaries to edge closer to Trump in total delegates, he might have a viable claim to overtake Trump at the convention. Cruz could point out that Trump's momentum stopped after voters got a good, long look at him, and that Republicans then switched their loyalty to Cruz.

Cruz is a smart politician with an effective organization. (He had this whole thing figured out until Trump dropped in from outer space.) He also possesses, or at least pretends to, some of the anarchic qualities that make Trump so appealing to voters who have given up on conventional politics. His core voters may hate slightly different things than Trump voters hate, but Cruz could prove politically skillful enough to build a bridge of loathing between them. (Politics can be beautiful that way.)

Establishment Fantasy Scenario

This is the outcome that many Republicans in Washington, D.C., who fear Trump and detest Cruz, seem to dream about. In this case, Trump and Cruz go into the national convention having won the vast majority of delegates between them. In voting for Trump and Cruz, this majority has proved contemptuous and distrustful of Republican elites, and eager to humiliate and punish them for perceived failures and betrayals.

Under the fantasy scenario, members of that detested elite then finagle a nomination that disrespects and repudiates the votes of those millions of Republican primary voters. Instead, in an outcome that will variously be described with words such as "backroom" and "coup" and "treason," the establishment engineers a nomination for someone such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, who didn’t compete in the primaries, or, even more unlikely, the Ohio governor who did compete -- and lost and lost and lost.

There is much consternation among Republican leaders that a Trump nomination would break the party. But the outcome most likely to break the party is the one in which Republican elites crown one of their own. Such a candidate would be perceived as illegitimate -- not by every Republican, surely, but by enough Trump and Cruz voters to court disaster.  

The party can survive and lose with Trump. It can survive and possibly win with Cruz, who is wily enough to do better in a general election than many suspect. It's not at all clear that the GOP can survive a Ryan or a Romney or a Kasich as its nominee. That just might provide the very death blow that party leaders fear. 

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:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net