Donald Trump's assertion that all Muslims must be blocked from entering the United States has finally caused the leadership of the Republican Party at all levels to understand what Republican strategists have understood for months: if Trump is the Republican presidential nominee, the Party -- already struggling by its loss of the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections -- could very well cease to exist as a competitive national and presidential party.
With Trump as the nominee Republicans would be lucky to carry 10 states and no more than a third of the popular vote. It would be far worse for the Republican Party than Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972 for the Democrats. Republicans would likely lose eight seats and control of the Senate, and hemorrhage 30 or more seats in the House. And the damage done with Hispanics, Asians, blacks, young people and single women would likely be irreparable for generations. Rational Republicans know he must be stopped. But how?
(As a former Executive Director and elected member of the Democratic National Committee this cascading Republican catastrophe would give me some measure of satisfaction. But as a political scientist who believes in a competitive two party system, its consequences would be devastating to American democracy. Hence my unsolicited advice to Republicans.)
Unfortunately for the Republicans, their National Committee (RNC) has adopted a set of delegate selection rules that provide a tailor-made blueprint for a Donald Trump coup of the Republican presidential nomination. In its attempt to have the nomination settled quickly in the spring the Republican Party adopted a "frontloaded" system where almost 50% of the delegates are selected on or before March 15, almost all by a system of proportional representation. By allotting delegates to candidates that poll even as low as 10% of primary votes, proportional representation encourages candidates to stay in the race. Proportional representation is the inverse of a system that quickly winnows down the race to two or three candidates.
But the Republican rules encourage winner-take-all primaries in the next period of the nomination process, starting mid-March. The thinking was that at this phase of the process it would be beneficial to narrow the field. The hope was that with the field whittled down, a strong candidate would then sweep big state primaries and lock up the nomination quickly, maybe by May or early June. However, under these rules, even a Trump could sweep multi-candidate winner-take-all primaries like New Jersey, Ohio and California with a plurality of his 35% presumed "ceiling". Under the current system, even a Trump could thus have a majority of the convention delegates by early June.
So even if there is common agreement among party leaders that Trump must be stopped before he destroys the party, it will not be simple and clean. It may require very bold and creative action by the RNC and by Republican presidential candidates who would have their own blocs of delegates. Here is how it could be done.
If the current system were amended so that all states were proportional, Trump's presumed ceiling of 35% of the vote (i.e. the most Republicans likely to choose him in the selection process) would result in 35% of the delegates, leaving 65% of the delegates to those pledged to other candidates and to party leaders who have ex officio votes. One could reasonably argue that winner-take-all primaries violate the intent of the party's ban on the "unit rule" which causes delegations to vote as a single block, thus providing a rationale for such action.
The RNC could meet in emergency session and prohibit winner-take-all primaries at any time. In the alternative, credential challenges at the convention could be brought against all winner-take-all states which -- if successful -- would then award delegates proportionally, keeping Trump well below the number needed for the nomination. This would create a classic open, "brokered" convention where electability would be the key factor in the wheeling and dealing.
A process so bold and so blatantly initiated to stop Trump would almost certainly trigger a Trump third-party presidential run. But it would not doom Republican control of the Senate and the size of the Republican majority in the House. It would not destroy the Republican Party's attempts to broaden its base and appeal to racial and ethnic minorities in the American electorate.
Such a dramatic Stop Trump strategy would make it unlikely that any of the presidential candidates involved in the Stop Trump movement could be nominated. It would be too divisive. A more likely outcome would be the party turning to a unifying and electorally attractive figure not tainted by the bloody battle of the nomination process. The most obvious choice would be Paul Ryan being drafted once again.
Of course, a three party race would make it very difficult for any Republican candidate, even a new face like Ryan's, to be elected. His election would be difficult, but unlike a Trump presidential victory, not impossible. It would not destroy the Republican Party as a national political party. It could result in Republicans keeping control of the Senate and would likely prevent a hemorrhage in the Republican House.
The Republican Party is in a battle for survival. Most Republican leaders agree that Trump should be stopped. It remains to be seen if they have the courage to get the job done.