There's a certain point in every election cycle when pollsters stop using what's called the "generic ballot" question — "Do you plan to vote for a Democrat or a Republican?" — and start asking about specific candidates.
Pollsters moved on months ago. But the rise of the #NeverTrump coalition — a marriage of convenience between Republican establishment types and conservative-movement professionals — brings its adherents right back there.
They are stuck staring at a generic ballot: Trump versus Not Trump.
Their big hope is that Not Trump will carry the party to a brokered convention, where Not Trump might become an actual candidate who can take the crown. It's just not clear who the person is who can bear the full weight of the Not Trump coalition.
Trump leads by 1.5% in Vermont. 2/3rds of delegates will be #NeverTrump.— #NeverTrump (@PatrickRuffini) March 2, 2016
But, of course, those aren't the choices. The choices are Trump — and four other Republican candidates. While it seems like the obvious answer is to pick a horse and ride it, NeverTrumpers have their reasons for being where they are. And where they are is Trump versus ... somebody else.
The fantasy of a not-Trump Voltron
What you need to understand about the NeverTrumpers is that they see Donald Trump as a completely unacceptable standard-bearer for the Republican Party. So while individual NeverTrumpers have their own personal preferences about who should win, when they look at Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio, or John Kasich, what they see is A Candidate Who Is Acceptable Because He Is Not Trump.
This makes sense as a matter of personal preference. But when you start assuming that's the way everyone else sees the race, too — that the central question for all Republicans is Trump versus Not Trump, and everyone picking a Not Trump candidate has definitively rejected Trump — you start seeing the race differently from the way the actual candidates see it.
1 Here is a completely fanciful Twitter scenario: cruz/rubio/kasich realize the name of the game now is keeping trump under 1237— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) March 2, 2016
2 they form a triple entente of convenience,kasich/cruz endorse rubio in FLA;rubio/cruz endorse kasich in OH;rubio/kasich endorse cruz in MO— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) March 2, 2016
Rich Lowry is right. This is completely fanciful. But that's not stopping him, and other establishment conservative and Republican figures, from acting as if it's already happening — as if Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich all represent a unified candidacy under the rubric of "not Donald Trump."
This is not at all what the candidates themselves are saying! If anything, after Super Tuesday the Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz campaigns are putting more pressure on one another to drop out of the race. Cruz invited his rivals to "prayerfully" consider unifying behind him. And while Rubio's campaign appears to believe Rubio would have won Virginia if not for Kasich, a Kasich strategist is openly calling on Rubio to drop out.
But somehow, in the world of the NeverTrumpers, this rolling dust cloud of kicks and punches is a NeverTrump alliance. Instead of non-Trump candidates focusing their attacks on one another — as they've been doing for this entire campaign — they're apparently going to start attacking Trump.
Delegate totals after tonight per Upshot.— #NeverTrump (@PatrickRuffini) March 2, 2016
OTHERS = 351
The "you drop out, no you drop out" talk is as useless now as it was 2wks ago. Cruz and Rubio need to continue the all-out assault on Trump.— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) March 2, 2016
The belief in the NeverTrump Voltron candidate is so strong that some think it's actually motivating voters to the polls to vote against him (never mind that many of the biggest turnout records this GOP primary has set have been on the sites of Trump's biggest wins):
As for line about big GOP voting--but just as Trump is bringing voters out, not-Trump may be doing the same. https://t.co/otO2CijXUr— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) March 2, 2016
The Not Trump end goal is a brokered convention — which would basically prove Trump supporters right
The current hope of the NeverTrumpers is that they can keep Trump from getting a majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention in June. There, they can force a "brokered convention" — essentially, the party establishment swooping in and taking the nomination away from the voters' choice for it.
Report from @Lileks on MN caucuses fascinating. This is going to be an open convention --by which I mean no one will have 1,237 delegates— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) March 2, 2016
This is going to be very difficult for the NeverTrumpers to pull off. For one thing, they have to prevent Trump from accumulating support in later primaries simply for being the frontrunner, which is usually what happens.
For another, they have to keep all of the candidates from dropping out, despite having no chance of winning the nomination on the campaign trail. That's going to be an embarrassing experience, and it's hard to imagine both Rubio and Cruz putting up with it. If candidates do drop out, they'll have to pledge their delegates not to any of their opponents but to the NeverTrump coalition itself — and then their delegates, who will be free to choose to vote for Trump, will have to follow suit.
But even if they could do it, it's not at all clear it would be a good idea. Party elites scheming to reject the people's choice for the nomination and put up someone they haven't voted for instead — someone they either could have voted for and chose not to, or who never campaigned at all — is exactly the kind of top-down system rigging that leads people to distrust party establishments. It feeds the backlash that fueled Trump to begin with.
It's important to remember that the NeverTrump coalition isn't just frustrated Republican establishmentarians. It's also professional movement conservatives who don't feel Trump should be nominated because he doesn't reflect their movement. For the first group, rigging the convention to reject Trump might be the way business is done; for the second group, it's a collusion with the powers they have spent the last several years fighting against.
That might be a trade-off the NeverTrumpers are willing to make. But it's not clear every conservative feels the same way.
The history of the race suggests you can't contain Trump
Then again, it's not clear that the Republican establishment and the conservative professionals can find another path forward, either:
- The party establishment united behind Jeb Bush, raising him $100 million and hoping the primary would be wrapped before it even started.
- Meanwhile, conservative intellectuals and professionals didn't rally around a single candidate because they thought they had multiple strong options.
- Voters rejected Jeb Bush in an embarrassing fashion and strongly supported Trump — who wasn't on either the Republican or the conservative establishment's list of acceptable candidates.
- The conservative movement rallied behind Ted Cruz, who has won early states but might be peaking — and whom the Republican establishment won't accept.
- The Republican establishment attempted to rally behind Marco Rubio, who looks like he ought to be able to compete in a lot of states but has only managed to win one of them so far — and whom the conservative movement dismisses as an also-ran.
- Donald Trump is, as of the day after Super Tuesday, 14 days from sewing up the nomination.
You can see why the marriage of convenience might be attractive to the NeverTrumpers. Each group — the Republican establishment and the conservative-movement professionals — understands its preferred candidate isn't acceptable to the other, and in the spirit of compromise both are willing to set their champions aside.
They fear Trump more than they hate each other. They're either confident they'll be able to ultimately find someone both groups can accept, or simply focusing on stopping Trump before they get to the next steps. (And in the case of the Republican establishment, it's easy to see why they prefer Not Trump to any particular candidate: They've chosen two candidates already, only to see them get pummeled at the ballot box.)
But the fact that there's no single candidate, just the absence of one, underscores the fragility of the coalition. And it's not clear how big it can grow. Plenty of Republicans have voted for candidates who aren't Trump, but are all of them more interested in voting Not Trump than anything else? How many Republicans who voted for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich are sure that the Not Trump they didn't vote for is better than Trump?
The Not Trump movement is a tacit, belated acknowledgment that Trump won't stop himself
When Trump first rose to the top of the polls, the assumption was that he had a "ceiling" — only a small group of Republicans would be willing to support him, and he wouldn't be able to win over anyone beyond that group. The brokered convention hope is essentially the opposite of the ceiling theory.
It's not Trump whose appeal is limited — it's the appeal of every other candidate in the race, such that they all have to stay in together to keep Trump from getting a majority. The NeverTrumpers may not accept Trump as an appropriate standard-bearer for Republicans, but they know that isn't enough to stop him.
For most of the campaign, the assumption was that Trump would be a lot weaker and easier to attack once he was locked in one-on-one combat with a single opponent. Now the NeverTrumpers want to keep that from happening. And even as they point out (accurately) that Trump has never been hit with a sustained attack from another candidate, and could very well be vulnerable to one, the brokered convention Voltron fantasy makes it less likely that he'll experience that from another Republican.
The biggest problem is that the Republican primary isn't a referendum: to Trump or not to Trump? It's a choice among actual candidates that exist. And there is no single actual candidate who appeals to all the NeverTrumpers — if there were, they would have figured it out by now.