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For leading Republicans, #NeverTrump is often paired with "unless he wins the nomination"

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty

Scott Walker has been one of Donald Trump's biggest critics for months now — and yet on Wednesday, the Wisconsin governor told reporters that if Trump won the Republican nomination, he'd support him in the general election, according to the Associated Press.

This got some breathless attention on Twitter. But Walker's spokesperson pointed out that it really shouldn't have, since Walker has always said he'd support the nominee.

He's right — Walker pledged back during the first debate to back anyone who won the nomination — and this has been a fundamental tension with anti-Trump efforts from the start.

In most cases, "NeverTrump" hasn't really meant "never" — it's only referred to the primaries. Even leading anti-Trump Republicans have been far less willing to say they'd disavow Trump in the general election — you know, the vote that could actually make him president of the United States.

  • John McCain has been trashing Trump since July, and is repulsed by his immigration views. But in December, McCain said that while he may disagree with Trump on some issues, "I will support the nominee of the Republican Party."
  • Lindsey Graham, another outspoken Trump critic, has been happy to argue that a Trump nomination would mean electoral disaster for the GOP. But he's been far more hesitant to commit to actually opposing Trump in the fall. I'll cross that bridge when I get there," Graham said in February.
  • And in the March 3 debate, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio all pledged to support Trump if he won the GOP nomination. "I'll support Donald if he's the Republican nominee," Rubio said. "I gave my word that I would," Cruz said. "I will support whoever is the Republican nominee," said Kasich.

Yes, there are some vocal political consultants, activists, and conservative media figures who seem to mean it when they say they will never vote for Trump. But they're not representative of either Republican voters or politicians (most of whom aren't even trying to stop Trump).

And if all these leading Republicans are willing to vote to make Trump the president, it's quite difficult for them argue that Trump's nomination poses some kind of existential threat to the party or the country.

If you'd vote for Trump in the general, why would you back a contested convention to prevent his nomination?

This problem is more acute than ever now that Trump has amassed a big lead in pledged delegates and actual votes. Whether or not Trump wins a delegate majority, he's near-certain to finish well ahead of Cruz at this point. That it means it would take a contested convention — an extraordinary event in which a small group of delegates would take it upon themselves to determine the nomination — to depose Trump.

But since Trump has won by far the most delegates and votes, drastic and unusual measures to depose him could well look illegitimate to the party's voters if they view Trump as the rightful winner of the primary — as polls show they likely would in this situation.

Now, theoretically, GOP elites could justify taking such a drastic tack by arguing that Trump is simply unfit to be president, and that, therefore, desperate times call for desperate measures.

But since so many of the party's leading figures have been saying for months that they'll vote to make Trump president if he manages to win the nomination, this doesn't really pass the laugh test.

Instead, the tack that anti-Trump supporters have taken is to argue that these drastic measures wouldn't be so drastic after all. If Trump falls short of an outright majority, they say, the delegates get to decide and that's simply how the system works. Perfectly normal, nothing to see here, thank you very much.

This won't fly. A contested convention in which the nomination doesn't go to the winner in pledged delegates would be incredibly unusual, and could well cause a serious backlash. NeverTrumpers should stop fighting a doomed battle to pretend it's perfectly normal — and should instead focus on making the case about why such extraordinary measures are necessary.

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