It was too late by then.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Republican Politicians Have Only Their Fears to Blame

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.
Read More.
a | A

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa said this on the morning after the town-hall debate in St. Louis:

Robert Costa @costareports
In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base.
Twitter: Robert Costa on Twitter

Dozens of Republican politicians jumped off the Donald Trump train over the weekend, after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released. Though the vast majority of Republican elected officials are still with Trump -- at least publicly -- few will defend him. Remember, there were already an unusual number of high-profile Republicans who had broken with their own nominee, with many saying they would support Hillary Clinton and others just refusing to vote for Trump. 

Why did it take so long for the rejection to build? This is what responsible Republican leaders (or just self-interested ones) needed to do early this year: Get over their exaggerated fear of their voters and get behind a tolerable candidate such as Marco Rubio or John Kasich (or, earlier, Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or even Bobby Jindal or Rick Perry or whomever).

Or they could have bit the bullet in late spring, when they still had the option of Ted Cruz and Kasich. 

Or they could have denied Trump the nomination, even after the primaries were over. They had enough votes collectively to do that. Trump was far short of the majority he needed without additional support from the Republican National Committee.

Yes, this would have made Trump supporters very angry. And if these party actors had waited until the convention, they would have faced chaos as well as anger. 

And yet? Democrats endured plenty of hostility from Bernie Sanders delegates at their convention, and no doubt those angry delegates were acting in accord with tens of thousands -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- of voters who backed the Vermont socialist. But you know what? Almost all of those Sanders voters are supporting Clinton today -- even many of those who are still upset about the nomination.

The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein says that a “‘normal’ candidate couldn’t have won the [Republican] nomination.” I can’t agree. “Normal” candidates won in 2012, 2008 and every other year, and normal candidates win Republican nominations in Senate and gubernatorial elections all the time. It just means there are some angry losers.  

My View colleague Tyler Cowen points out that Republican party actors were trapped in a collective-action problem. It’s a problem they created themselves. Many GOP politicians have egged on the behavior that has made many Republican voters hate their own party. And those same politicians simultaneously developed an exaggerated fear of those voters, who, when all is said and done, have only toppled a handful of elected Republicans, and almost always wind up voting for their party in general elections.

In part, it took so long for many Republican politicians to reject Trump because sometimes it takes a cumulative effect of some magnitude to make a difference. It’s a mistake to believe that the straw that broke the camel’s back is more important than all the previous straws.

And while claims of sexual misconduct have been around for a while, the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump making lewd comments about groping and assaulting women provided the video and audio to make the story harder to dismiss. Another factor was that some Republican politicians were so far inside the conservative closed-information feedback loop that they managed to believe Trump was merely a buffoon, not a bigot, a misogynist or worse.

And, yes, Trump’s decline in the polls before the tape was released also made a difference. 

With only four weeks to the election, Republican politicians don’t have any good choices left. But whatever happens in the meantime, perhaps they’ll learn that there are worse consequences than angering their strongest supporters.

  1. In practical terms, a motion to “free the delegates” to vote as they pleased would have passed with RNC support, and Trump would then have failed to reach a majority on the first ballot.

  2. Trump would have been a particularly troublesome angry loser, to be sure, although one with a very short attention span (and one who, however much money he actually has, would have been unlikely to write checks out of his own pocket to fight against Republicans who betrayed him). 

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at