Americans love a happy ending.
It’s true of our movies, our religion, and our seemingly unshakable quasi-providential civic faith in historical progress. (Have you heard that the arc of history bends toward justice?) It’s also true of our politics. But for Republicans hoping for a happy ending to the 2016 presidential campaign — well, they are in for an awfully rude awakening.
Just listen to the fantasies gripping the beleaguered Republican establishment and some of its conservative-movement cheerleaders about the likely outcome of a contested convention in July. Sure, the candidate with the most popular votes is a know-nothing populist-authoritarian real estate mogul with few ideological ties to the mainstream of the party. And yes, the candidate with the second most popular votes is a one-term senator who’s spent the past four years playing a high-stakes game of chicken with GOP leadership. But that’s okay: No worries! The party will somehow manage to engineer events in the remaining primaries and on the floor of the Cleveland convention hall so that the first option (Donald Trump) fails to reach the required 1,237 delegate votes on the first ballot and the second option (Ted Cruz) falls short on the next. And then, somehow, a candidate more amenable to the GOP establishment — a Mitt Romney or a Marco Rubio or a Chris Christie or a Condi Rice — will emerge and prevail on a subsequent ballot.
This would be a very happy ending for the GOP establishment. It also is definitely not going to happen.
The idea that in this of all years, with an anti-establishment insurgency roiling the Republican Party (and not just the Republican Party), the leadership of the GOP is going to be able to herd 1,237 cats in the direction of its choosing is flatly ridiculous.
The most likely scenario remains that Trump will either reach 1,237 delegates by the time the last votes are counted in California at the end of primary season or he’ll come close enough (within 50 delegates or so) that he’ll be able to persuade a few dozen uncommitted delegates to come on board before the start of the convention six weeks later. If either of those things happen, Trump will be named the nominee on the first ballot, all the ballyhoo about a contested convention will have come to nothing, and the establishment will have gotten screwed.
But let’s say it doesn’t happen — that Trump falls something closer to 100 or more delegates short of 1,237. In that case, Trump will likely lose on the first ballot (while still coming far closer than anyone else). Then we’ll get to see just how formidable the Cruz campaign’s arm-twisting and delegate-list stacking really is. Because just as lots of Trump’s delegates will be freed up after the first ballot, so will Cruz’s. That means Cruz needs to hold on to as many of his own bound delegates as he can, while also hoping that a sizable chunk of Trump’s (and Kasich’s and Rubio’s and Carson’s) defect to him, while also hoping that lots of unbound delegates come on board, too. If everything goes Cruz’s way, he’ll get to 1,237 on the second ballot, and the contested convention will settle down relatively quickly — with the establishment still getting screwed, though a little less so than it would by a Trump victory.
It’s the futile hope of avoiding this frustrating fate that’s leading some establishment types to work behind the scenes to ensure that things don’t go Cruz’s way on the second ballot.
That’s where the magical thinking really kicks in. And promptly falls flat on its face.
Keep in mind: If neither Trump nor Cruz — the two candidates who earned the most popular votes in the primaries by far — hit the 1,237 threshold, the delegates are effectively free to choose anyone. What is the mechanism that will get them to rally around one option rather than another? There isn’t one.
And this, dear reader, is a consensus-forming problem from hell: 2,472 free agents forming and joining factions however they want and jostling for advantage with no overarching authority imposing discipline on the whole.
Imagine it: There will be lingering Trump supporters; a big faction of Cruz partisans; a group of Kasich enthusiasts in the Ohio delegation and from some Northeastern and Midwestern states; Rubio dead-enders scattered throughout the arena; die-hard Romney fanatics from Utah and elsewhere; Paul Ryan fan-boys from Wisconsin and any place with a big free-market think tank who simply will not take no for an answer. And don’t forget the surrogates from all of these political operations prowling the convention hall, whipping votes for each in a hall filled with members of the 2016 GOP — a party riven by deep, rancorous ideological disagreements that fueled the populist insurgencies that got us to this point in the first place.
If that isn’t chaos, I don’t know what is.
What’s liable to be the result? I have no idea — and neither does the Republican establishment. But I do know that the establishment isn’t going to be able to control it after Cruz has taken his stand on the second ballot and the delegates have untethered themselves from the constraints imposed by the popular vote totals. From that point on, anything can happen.
Which means the party better hope that Cruz prevails. Because after him, the whirlwind.