How Far Might The GOP Go To Thwart Donald Trump At Its Convention?

Contemplating the "hell with the lid off" scenario.
If Donald Trump is leading and the GOP establishment decides to take measures during the convention to make someone else the
If Donald Trump is leading and the GOP establishment decides to take measures during the convention to make someone else the 2016 nominee, party leaders better be sure they know what they're doing.

In just about any election year, political observers hoping for something other than an anodyne set of political conventions that proceed from opening invocation to the inevitable balloon drop along a well-strategized through line of political brand-management will fantasize about a floor fight. Typically, dreams of a contested (or if you must, "brokered") convention boil down to a raft of wishful thinking. And speaking of wishful thinking, how's that effort to stop Donald Trump from claiming the GOP nomination going?

Yes, to borrow a tawdry cliche, this time it's different. As Trump has risen in the polls, the fears of the GOP establishment -- which loathes the prospect of handing the keys to its kingdom over to an authoritarian glazed doughnut -- have escalated. Trump has been the best of friends to the contested convention fantasists because of his knack for pushing traumatized Republican Party fixers out of their warrens and into the pages of newspapers.

The only real question is: How far would GOP elites go to thwart a Trump nomination? Today we'll consider the possibility that they'll issue a Code Black, and blow up their own convention from the inside.

At The New York Times, Trip Gabriel and the paper's Upshot team have paired a thorough walk-through of the Republican Party's delegate selection system with a taut data visualization of what it would take for Marco Rubio -- who is, at this point, arguably the one man who might (I am being so generous here) thwart Trump outright in the primary contests yet to come. Suffice it to say, it's a daunting prospect for the Florida senator, one that requires multiple reverses in fortune and some downright implausible events to transpire. Per Gabriel:

The Rubio campaign is hoping for several things in the coming weeks: that Mr. Cruz will withdraw after a poor finish on Super Tuesday; that Mr. Rubio will carry the moderate states of Minnesota and Virginia that day; and that on March 15 — the first day of voting in big winner-take-all states — Mr. Rubio will sweep the 99 delegates in his home state of Florida.

To put it delicately, there's no aspect to this path to victory that's not some sort of "bite down and pray" situation. The whole "winning Florida" part is perhaps the most problematic element here. The current HuffPost Pollster polling average model of Florida has Trump leading Rubio, 42.1 percent to 23.8 percent, and Florida is a winner-take-all affair. Worse for Rubio, tens of thousands of Floridians have already voted.

It's at this point that you start to consider the contested convention scenario. As the Upshot team notes, "If Mr. Rubio struggles on Super Tuesday and can’t at least split the delegates on March 15, his campaign will be in trouble. But he still might be able to earn enough votes to force a brokered convention by preventing Mr. Trump from earning an outright majority of delegates."

The idea here is that if the rest of the GOP field holds Trump below the 1,237 delegates needed to notch the nomination outright, it creates the possibility that there will be no nominee after the first round of balloting at the convention. From there, a not-insignificant number of convention delegates would become "unbound," and thus eligible to vote for any candidate. (There is wide variance from one state delegation to the next as to the number of delegates who would be thus freed from their commitment, and at what point in the balloting process this freedom would come.)

As Politico's Ben Schreckinger reported in February, campaigns and super PACs have been quietly laying the groundwork to capitalize on this potential scenario for a few weeks. 

But deep down in Gabriel's New York Times piece comes the suggestion of a more radical solution to the GOP's Trump problem (emphasis mine):

“I think the establishment will do anything in their power to try to stop Donald Trump at the national convention,” said John Patrick Yob, the former delegate strategist for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who dropped out of the race on Feb. 3.

That could include changing rules that bind delegates to candidates, said Mr. Yob, One of the first orders of business at the national convention in Cleveland in July will be a meeting by the rules committee to determine guidelines for the proceedings.

Delegates may not personally support the candidates they are bound to represent, based on their state’s primary or caucus results. If they are “unbound” by a rule change, or after a first ballot in which no candidate wins a majority, the nominating fight could crack wide open on the convention floor.

That's quite the either/or situation! There's been lots of talk about a potential unbinding of the delegates after the first ballot at the convention, but this is the first time I can recall anyone suggesting that the party's rule-makers might select a full "Calvinball" option, in which delegates are unbound from the jump by an abrupt rule change. That possibility has hitherto been almost unthinkable, and may yet be near unallowable. But here we are, imagining a situation in which the Republican Party makes an outright choice for a floor fight.

The thing is, party elites can redraw the rules at the convention.

The current rules that govern the process were, in fact, determined on the floor of the 2012 convention. At that time, party leaders decided to enact rules that effectively sidelined Ron Paul-supporting delegates, preventing them from delaying or intruding on leaders' desired outcome: a quick and orderly nomination for Mitt Romney. Subsequent wheeler-dealing enabled the party to erect a primary system that they thought would lead to an easy nomination process in this election cycle. (Gabriel documents at length how Trump himself ended up the beneficiary of the party's designs in what I'm sure will be a fantastic cover story for the upcoming issue of The Journal Of Unintended Consequences.)

Should the Republican Party's rule-makers somehow bring this about, it would be a whale-sized gamble. In the first place, it's probably not a good idea to make any broad assumptions about what obstacles Trump would fail to surmount. There's every possibility that his campaign will send loyal delegates to the convention and circumvent this chaos. And as they say, if you come at the king, you best not miss.

But even hitting the king in this instance would likely reap the whirlwind for the Republican Party. In the first place, can you imagine Donald Trump being sanguine about this outcome? Can you imagine his die-hard supporters accepting it? If you can, you've not been paying attention. If the GOP establishment, through its establishment machinations, successfully subverts the will of Trump's anti-establishment supporters, the backlash it would engender would be white hot in its anger.

In this situation, the Republicans had damn well better win the general election, and quickly and seamlessly enact a conservative agenda. And that agenda, once enacted, had better start paying real, discernible dividends to the voters that make up Trump's disaffected populist base, or that base will rain holy hell on the GOP for many election cycles to come.

That list of must-dos, which would inevitably arise if Trump were taken down in the ultimate backroom deal, is not a list of goals that the GOP seems close to being ready to achieve. But its desperation to supersede Trump's nomination may trump everything else.

Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.