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The vast majority of Republican politicians aren't even trying to stop Donald Trump

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Over the past few days, Ted Cruz has scored big-name endorsements from Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham. Mitt Romney urged GOP voters across the country to vote for Cruz. And Scott Walker said Cruz is the only viable alternative to Donald Trump in the race.

But don't let all that lead you to believe the Republican Party is finally uniting around Cruz, or finally agreeing on a strategy to stop Trump.

The real story here is that the vast majority of Republican Party politicians are remaining silent and staying out of the fray, just as they have been throughout the primary season.

Yes, there is a small faction of the party willing to say in public that Trump should be stopped, and there are some more insiders willing to help behind the scenes.

But there appears to be a much larger majority that, even now, doesn't want to bother lifting a finger.

For instance, according to FiveThirtyEight's tracker, Cruz has won the endorsement of a grand total of:

  • Two out of the 53 Republican senators who aren't named Ted Cruz
  • Four out of the 31 Republican governors
  • 31 out of the 246 Republican House of Representatives members

That's more endorsements than either Trump or Kasich has managed to get, but not that many more. (Trump has been endorsed by one senator and three governors; Kasich has two of each.)

More importantly, it's a remarkably small tally overall. Eighty-two percent of GOP House members, 90 percent of GOP senators, and 69 percent of GOP governors haven't endorsed any of the three remaining candidates. (Some had endorsed Marco Rubio, who has since dropped out, but even when he was in the race the majority of the party was neutral.)

Four explanations for the party's seeming acquiescence to Trump

It's long been assumed that "the party" would go all out to stop Trump from winning. For instance, Nate Silver predicted in August that even if Trump did well in the primaries, "the Republican Party would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid nominating him."

There's still a bit of time left for that to happen, I suppose. And Trump's lack of endorsements despite his months of poll dominance and current delegate lead certainly indicate that the party isn't thrilled with his success.

But the GOP politicians who are willing to publicly oppose Trump remain a relatively small minority. And I'd speculate that the rest of the party can be sorted into one or more of these four groups:

  1. The indifferent: Many elected officials might genuinely not care all that much who's the leader of their party. They could be focused on their own state or district's issues, and insulated from electoral pressure due to representing heavily Republican districts or just not being on the ballot this year.
  2. The fearful: Some want Trump stopped but are unwilling to risk backlash from his supporters. Simply put, these GOP politicians need to win primaries, and a lot of GOP primary voters have been casting their ballots for Trump. So why antagonize them?
  3. The resigned: Some want Trump stopped but don't think anything they do will make a difference. This could be a collective action problem, with the reluctance of individuals to act hampering any overall "stop Trump" effort from gaining steam. Or it could be an accurate recognition that endorsements from elites had seemingly no electoral impact this year. Or they could look at the delegate math and simply conclude it's too late.
  4. The secret Trump supporters: Some politicians could in fact want Trump to win but are remaining quiet. Rep. Chris Collins of New York and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California — two of the few members of Congress who have publicly endorsed Trump — have each claimed that other members of Congress agree with them but are hesitant to go public.

If so many Republicans are unwilling to come out against Trump now, will there really be a contested convention?

Regardless of whether more Republican politicians are indifferent, fearful, resigned, or secret Trump fans, their overall unwillingness to act has implications for the race going forward.

Specifically, the most plausible scenario for stopping Trump now is that he'd be deposed at a contested convention. That even if he finishes first in the delegate count (which appears quite likely at this point), if he's short of an outright majority, the non-Trump delegates could unite around someone else.

But if the delegates pass over the first-place finisher in favor of anointing someone who finished in second or third place, or someone who didn't even run, there would be a tremendous public backlash.

Now, it's possible that the delegates will be more willing to endure this backlash than leading Republican politicians seem to be. If many turn out to be die-hard Ted Cruz supporters or conservative true believers who think Trump is a serious threat to their party or the country, they could very well take Trump down. We just don't know who the delegates are yet, so it's hard to say.

Yet the reluctance of a large majority of Republicans to take even the very basic step of endorsing a candidate who's not Donald Trump does not seem to me to bode well for the #NeverTrump effort.