Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
It has been apparent for some time that the GOP is on a path to national irrelevance. No less a source than the party’s own post-2012 assessment trumpeted this conclusion and urged a change of course. No course correction has occurred. Now, in the shape of Donald Trump, we can start to see the outline of how the party might crack apart and realign itself.
Trump’s apparent popularity among Republican voters, sustained over several months, suggests he might actually be successful in the primaries. That success would set up an irreconcilable conflict with the party infrastructure. Our nominating process evolved with the expectation that a presumed nominee would be apparent before anyone casts a vote in a primary. Success by Trump in the primaries will not necessarily secure either the nomination or the support of the party.
If Trump makes a credible run at the nomination it will almost certainly lead to a formal division of the GOP. Here are the factors that might contribute to a division and a few examples of how the process could play out.
For starters, we have to understand the disconnect between winning a primary and securing convention delegates. The first thing does not necessarily lead to the second thing. With many state-level deadlines running out soon, Trump still has none of the ground presence required to win at the convention.
Contributing to this uncertain climate is yet another factor. Though Trump is farther behind than some others, none of the candidates has the kind of broad local presence it takes to definitively secure the nomination. This has never happened in the modern era.
There are a lot of very good reasons why Republicans always nominate the guy who finished second last time or was anointed by party insiders. Our process is structured to favor this outcome. Winning the nomination demands a national presence with a strong local ground game in every corner of the country. It is nearly impossible to accomplish this on a first national run.
Illinois presents a fine example of how this challenge plays out. When voters go to the polls here in the Republican primary in March they will not be selecting their favorite candidate. They will have the opportunity to vote on a slate of “electors” nominally committed to a certain candidate.
In order to have a presence on the ballot, each candidate must recruit electors in each of the state’s 18 Congressional districts. Those electors must then obtain enough signatures to appear on the ballot in that district. A candidate who fails to recruit qualified electors will not appear in the primary.
The collection period has already started here and the Trump campaign apparently has no declared electors working to get on the ballot. Trump is not the only candidate with this problem.
Lining up electors is still only part of the process. Only 54 of Illinois’ 69 Republican delegates are selected in the primary. The rest come from sitting officials and at-large selections made at the state convention. Those other 15 delegates carry no formal commitment to any candidate. What are the odds that they would support Trump at the convention under any circumstances?
Illinois’ process for selecting a nominee may be unique in its particulars, but it is typical of the broader pattern. In some states, like Minnesota, Iowa and Nevada, the caucus is merely suggestive of the final delegate count. Getting delegates to the national convention means winning support at county and state conventions. In most cases, that means developing a base of support in the years leading up to the campaign.
As another example, Texas’ 155 RNC delegates are selected at the state convention. Texas follows a process similar to Illinois in which 2/3 of the delegates are assigned via a complex schedule on a per-Congressional District basis. The remaining 1/3 of the delegates are at-large, selected from a pool of applicants. Primary results are supposed to influence the assignment of delegates. However, a candidate with little grassroots support and poor state level organization could find himself nominally represented by delegates who are deeply committed to another candidate.
With a presumed nominee none of this really matters. State level politicos who might not be tremendously supportive will still go along with the tide. In the absence of a presumed nominee, and with a candidate like Trump emerging from the primaries as the leader, delegates’ behavior at the convention becomes very difficult to predict.
We face a series of potential nightmare scenarios. All of these scenarios are plausible. Odds favor the possibility that one of them, or something along these lines, plays out.
Scenario 1 – Trump wins with a majority in the primaries, yet fails to secure a majority of the convention delegates. Delegates select another candidate, perhaps even someone who did not participate in the primaries. Trump graciously concedes…just kidding. He throws a fit and threatens an independent run.
Scenario 2 – No one wins a clear majority in the primaries. The top finisher goes into the convention with the largest number of delegates, but not enough to secure the nomination without brokering a deal. Trumps graciously concedes when the party rejects him…
Scenario 3 – Trump pulls off a narrow majority in the primaries and a slim majority of the delegates, enough that the convention selects him as the nominee. Do Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and others mount the podium in Cleveland to endorse Donald Trump? Really? Really really?
A brokered convention might be incapable of selecting a consensus nominee, with two or more candidates emerging from the wreckage promising a continued campaign for the White House. A Trump win at the convention is likely to result in a large number of prominent national Republicans either leaving the party outright or declaring support for Clinton. This is how political parties crumble and realign. Alliances and relationships formed on a divided convention floor become the raw materials of new partisan coalitions.
It is early yet. If Trump somehow implodes by February none of this might happen – this time. However, without some major realignment, the 2020 campaign will be even worse. If we somehow get a reprieve from chaos next summer, hopefully the party will use that window of opportunity to learn the neglected lessons of 2012. We could use the first years of the second Clinton Administration to build a sane, inclusive party ready to face the future. What are the odds?