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#NeverTrump and the coming schism in the Republican Party, explained

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There’s a corner of the Republican Party that has quietly feared and hated Donald Trump for months. It’s spilled, messily, into the open. Just click on the hashtag: #NeverTrump.

Trump just saw his highest level of support to date in a CNN/ORC poll released this morning — fully 49 percent of Republican voters said they backed the bombastic billionaire. But in the same poll, about a quarter of Republicans overall said they would refuse to support him if he became the nominee.

That refusal is what the #NeverTrump hashtag is about. On Thursday night, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz cornered Trump at a CNN debate, with Rubio throwing his harshest slugs to date at the frontrunner. Rubio’s criticisms sparked the frantic, public campaign #NeverTrump before Super Tuesday states cast ballots.

Top Republican Party members had already tried to stop Trump themselves. An issue of National Review was dedicated completely to the cause. Top operatives gathered to discuss a formalized anti-Trump strategy, involving a Super PAC that would air anti-Trump ads. The effort, first reported by the New York Times this weekend, failed in part because big donors wouldn’t gather behind it.

So with no cohesive strategy to stop Trump, #NeverTrump is taking on a life of its own.

How people are using the #NeverTrump hashtag

On Friday night, Erick Erickson, a conservative activist, first used the hashtag to describe how Trump offered an unsavory blend of authoritarianism and xenophobia — the sort of mix that will turn away most undecided voters and even some Republicans. It quickly caught on: People started tweeting out reasons why they would never support Trump. By Saturday, the hashtag was trending worldwide.

The anti-Trump revolt is interesting because it isn’t monolithic. Some #NeverTrumpers express virulent dislike of a man who they think would bring their party down along with him. Some of that is pure dislike of his personality; others express concern that he will alienate a whole generation of Republican voters, dooming the party’s chances.

Marco Rubio, who has proudly proclaimed he will stay in the race as long as it takes to oust the billionaire, jumped on the bandwagon by adopting the hashtag for himself.

Coming from the other end, movement conservative voices took advantage of the hashtag to decry Trump’s inconsistent conservative ideology. These conservatives might not necessarily prefer Rubio, but they object to Trump because his major plans, including erecting a massive wall on the US-Mexico border, don’t achieve the small-government conservatism they desire.

The most interesting voice to join this particular chorus was that of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who pledged to seek out a third-party candidate if Trump secured the nomination. His Twitter explanation — which is worth reading in full — explained the many ways in which Trump is not faithful to the constitutional understanding of limited government, which is the platform on which Sasse was elected.

When Republicans say never, do they really mean never?

It’s easy for Republicans to say now that they would never vote for Trump, while their preferred candidates Rubio and Cruz remain in the race. But no one has systematically studied how Republican voters will behave if confronted with the option of having a Trump presidency or a third term of a Democrat in the White House.

Past evidence, as much as past evidence can be trusted in this cycle, suggests that a person’s party identification is an incredibly strong predictor of how he or she will vote. For example, 93 percent of Republicans who voted in 2012 supported Mitt Romney, despite complaints from the party’s right wing that he was insufficiently conservative. This year, Republicans’ unified hatred for Hillary Clinton might again overcome internal divisions.

"Most people’s partisan loyalty comes before their policy preferences," Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown, told my colleague Dara Lind. "If the party establishment completely stonewalls supporting Trump, then it may hurt him. But he’ll still be the choice of most people who don’t want a Democrat."

Of course, #NeverTrump Republicans are unlike most other primary voters in that they’ve explicitly pledged not to vote for him regardless of the primary outcome. These voters therefore have a couple other options. They could simply stay home, abstaining from the process entirely. And there’s always the fear that turnout might work in the opposite direction — that Democratic voters will find Trump so unbelievably unacceptable they will turn out in record numbers against him.

But according to Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, that explanation leaves something to be desired: Turnout typically has more to do with individual voters’ connections to politics — whether they have political friends, say — rather than like or dislike of specific candidates.

In any case, it’s hard to dismiss Trump haters by saying, for the most part, they won’t vote.

The third and perhaps most daunting possibility is that were Trump to secure the nomination, his coronation could cause a genuine schism within the Republican Party. Azari thinks this is a not-unlikely outcome. She thinks it’s entirely possible that after pledging to back him as their nominee, Republican establishment types will back away from that promise and float a sort of "rump" candidate of their own.

In gaming out the strategy, they might figure that Trump will have taken the nomination as a plurality candidate — a candidate whose delegate allotment sits atop a mound of winner-take-all contests. If he does just win with a plurality of Republican support, that could leave party leaders wiggle room to float another party insider who’s more desirable to voters repelled by Trump’s inconsistent ideology or demagoguery.

"I’m not saying I think the third-party candidate can run and win," Azari said. But if that outcome does materialize, it may offer one way for party leaders to save face.

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