What would happen if Republican voters actually gave Donald Trump the party's presidential nomination next year over the explicit wishes of party elites? Would the insiders go along with what voters wanted, or would they push back? A similar thing happened in a recent Colorado gubernatorial contest, giving us an idea of what this might look like. Spoiler: It wouldn't be pretty.
Let me just state at the outset that I still consider a Trump nomination highly unlikely. But as Julia Azari notes, this has gone on a bit too long to be dismissed as just a joke. Alan Abramowitz thinks it's time to start taking a Trump nomination as a serious possibility. And David Karol notes how the modern party nomination system has always been vulnerable to a Trump type.
Could Republican primary voters and caucus-goers actually give Trump the nomination? Well, sure. As long as he's winning those contests and accruing the majority of delegates, the party will officially name him the nominee at its summer convention next year. Party insiders have been very good at guiding voters' preferences and pushing undesirable candidates out of the race in previous cycles, and they may well do that next year. But the insiders don't have magical powers or some secret convention strategy to derail a strong Trump showing in the caucuses and primaries. If Trump has a majority of the delegates at the convention, he has the nomination.
But it's also been quite clear that party insiders generally don't like Trump and think his nomination would be a disaster for the GOP. Former New Hampshire party chair Fergus Cullen describes Trump as a "dangerous demagogue." Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson describes him as a "hangover and then herpes."
"The longer he’s in the race and the longer he is leading, the more his brand damages our party," says Katie Packer Gage, a Republican DC political consultant. The National Review's coverage of Trump has been relentless and brutal. No governors or members of Congress have endorsed him.
So what happens if the rank and file nominates Trump and elites are still convinced that he will destroy the party? Certainly some elites would just jump on the Trump bandwagon, feeling the election of the worst Republican is still better than the election of the best Democrat. After all, a President Trump would still put a bunch of Republicans in the Cabinet and on the courts.
But other elites might bolt the party. To get a sense of what this would look like, it's worth remembering what happened in Colorado in 2010. Republicans there were set to nominate former Rep. Scott McInnis, a pretty mainstream conservative, for governor. However, a plagiarism scandal, followed by a Tea Party insurgency, resulted in McInnis losing the party's primary to Dan Maes, a small-business owner with no political experience and little funding or elite backing. Maes's political views were somewhat outside the mainstream, as he warned that municipal bike-sharing and recycling programs were part of an effort to move the United States under United Nations authority and promote abortion and population control.
Colorado Republican elites quickly went about trying to convince Maes, their own gubernatorial nominee, to drop out of the race. Many of them then endorsed former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a conservative Republican who was running for governor as the nominee of the American Constitution Party. Many mainstream, highly respected moderate Republican leaders abandoned their own party's nominee and urged their fellow Republicans to support the nominee of another party.
Maes refused to bow out, and in the end, the Republican nominee came in third with only 11 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding the GOP being classified as a minor party under state law. Democrat John Hickenlooper easily defeated the split Republican electorate with 51 percent of the vote. Yes, even if you combine both Republicans' vote shares, the Democrat still wins, but Republicans arguably would have had a good shot at that seat with a more conventional candidate and a united party, particularly in the Republican wave year of 2010.
Could something like this happen nationally next year? Could party elites like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the editorial board of the National Review simply refuse to fall in behind Trump and instead form their own temporary party? There's precedent for it, as Azari notes. Those leaders would certainly understand that winning the election under such circumstances would be basically impossible. Nonetheless, they might reason that a Trump presidency would do so much damage to their party and the country that it's worth scuttling the whole effort. They also might reasonably conclude that Trump would lose the general election regardless, so they might as well take a strong stance against it.
This would clearly be a nightmare scenario for Republicans. And it's one they can possibly avoid by forming a united front behind a different candidate. But at least so far, they've failed to do that.