Don't rule out the possibility of Donald Trump quitting the race. Republican officials keep leaking this proposition, and for the most part political commentators dismiss the idea as wishful thinking.
Trump, after all, abhors whiners and losers. But lately, he's been sounding like a man resigned to the idea that he could lose big.
In a Thursday interview, he told CNBC, "I'll just keep doing the same thing I'm doing right now. And at the end, it's either going to work, or I'm going to, you know, I'm going to have a very, very nice, long vacation."
But, hey, why endure eleven more weeks of humiliation? When you think about it, quitting beats losing. Trump's entire history as a businessman is dumping out of business ventures once they start failing. Why not call it a day sooner rather than later?
If Trump continues being unable to discipline himself (as all signs indicate), and if Hillary Clinton keeps solidifying her lead, there is a plausible scenario in which his campaign enters a kind death spiral.
First, more and more Republicans desert him. Recent press accounts quote senior Republicans saying that if Trump keeps sinking, there will be immense pressure for the Republican National Committee to write off his campaign as hopeless and shift funds to House and Senate races to preserve the Congressional fortress.
That move itself would only intensify the self-fulfilling prophesy aspect of Trump's deepening slide.
There has never been a case where a major party nominee quit a campaign (H. Ross Perot folded his 1992 third-party campaign in mid-July, then re-started it in October), but then Trump is a wholly unprecedented major candidate. Trump makes the impulsive Perot seem steadfast. He is capable of anything.
His rallies seem to energize him (and cause Trump to go off-message with self destructive rants), but all the negative coverage and the deepening slide in the polls seem to be depressing him. The man is nothing if not thin skinned. At some point, Trump could simply decide that this isn't fun any more, and the hell with all those insiders who keep ridiculing him. His ultimate revenge would be to fire himself.
What then? Suppose he actually quit the race?
Republican Party rules provide that the Republican National Committee would meet and select a candidate. That candidate, most likely, would be House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The also-rans in the Republican primaries are all too bloodied and blemished. Ryan stayed above the fray. Even though he's hard right, he passes for mainstream. He's not quite lunatic enough for the Tea Party, but close enough.
Seemingly, swapping Ryan for Trump would be bad news for Clinton. The Speaker has none of Trump's baggage. Republicans would breathe a huge sigh of relief. He'd run a professional campaign, his own missteps would not be the story, and an unflattering spotlight would be shone on Clinton.
But it's not that simple. Because unless Trump bailed out well before Labor Day, his name would stay on the ballot in most states even if the official GOP candidate competing for a given state's electors were say, Paul Ryan. As Greg Sargent recently reported in the Washington Post:
If Trump dropped out in late August, his name would already be certified to appear as the Republican candidate for president in at least 18 states. If he dropped out in September, that number could rise to more than 30 states. The Republican Party would have few options available to it, at this point, to remove Trump's name and replace it with their new nominee. They would likely have to look to the courts.
In many states, voters would have to write in Ryan's name, which would split the Republican vote even further and produce a landslide for Clinton. And if a resentful, vindictive Trump were to bail out but his name stayed on the ballot in upwards of 20 states, God only knows what he'd do in the campaign's final weeks.
Of course, the scenario of Trump calling it a day before the voters got their chance to humiliate him is still a long shot. But not, I think, out of the question.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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