Donald Trump is correct that the higher ups in the GOP may rig the Cleveland convention. But here’s the thing: They may rig it in Trump’s favor.
Trump is cutting it very close in his effort to win 1,237 bound delegates. In an openly and robustly contested convention, Trump would be the underdog, threatened by crafty conservative Ted Cruz and maybe also by an establishment White Knight. As much as they dread a Trump nomination, Republican leaders may fear the appearance of a coup even more. And the party leadership probably has the power to tilt the convention so as to secure a Trump win.
First, the delegate math:
Trump, after New York, has 845 bound delegates, leaving him with nearly 400 to go. Only about 640 delegates remain. If he has a very good day in April 26th’s five primaries he could take 105 or so delegates, leaving him in need of about 55 percent of remaining delegates. Making that tougher for Trump are three of the remaining winner-take-all states where Cruz is the favorite.
In Trump’s favor, however, is the tendency of hybrid states — where most delegates are allocated to the winner of a congressional district — to give 75 percent or more of their delegates to the statewide winner. California, with 172 delegates, is such a hybrid state.
In any event, it will be close. It’s highly likely Trump ends up close to an outright majority. Meanwhile, a few hundred delegates will arrive in Cleveland unbound. These unbound delegates will include some Rubio delegates, but also Pennsylvania’s 54 congressional-district delegates. Many of those Pa. delegates have indicated they will support whichever candidate wins their district, but no one can hold them to that promise.
So we could arrive in Cleveland with Trump not quite at the “presumptive nominee” level, but with more bound delegates than Cruz and Kasich combined, and close enough to 1,237 to win on the first ballot. That’s what Trump is counting on these days.
In this case, especially if national polls continue to show improved GOP acceptance of Trump, consider the perspective of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and his inner circle.
Would a Trump nomination be a disaster? Probably. He’d be very likely to lose to Hillary Clinton, he will be awful at raising money, thus draining party coffers, he could cost Republicans Senate seats in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, he could cost dozens of House seats, and he could kill party fundraising across the board.
A Trump nomination could be the political equivalent of a Category 5 Hurricane in the developing world, from which it could take more than a decade for the GOP recover.
But the party might view a perceived coup in Cleveland as something even worse.
First off, Trump will throw a fit over any result other than his nomination. We know that his definition of fairness is, “I win.” But the closer he is to 1,237 bound delegates, the more that cry would resonate with voters and observers.
Throughout the general election, a spurned Trump would continue to get the billions of the free airtime that cable networks love to give him, and he would use it to trash the Republican nominee and the party as a whole. Some share of the 35 percent of the GOP electorate that backed Trump could turn against the GOP nominee. That could also create electoral blowout, also with downballot consequences for the GOP.
Just as abhorrent to many GOP elites, an effort to stop Trump at convention could require supporting Ted Cruz, who is loathed in such circles. The GOP’s K Street fundraising network would be more shattered by a Cruz nomination than nominating Trump, who is flexible and corporatist enough to play ball with K Street.
Worst of all, if the GOP “steals” the nomination from Donald Trump, he could run again in 2020.
From the party leaders’ perspective, Trump 2016 might be an evil they have to embrace.
A contested convention would exacerbate Trump’s weaknesses — lack of organization, tactics, conservatism, and being a real Republican—and would play to Cruz’s strengths: ruthlessness, shrewdness, support among the conservative base and being twice as smart as Donald Trump.
That’s why the party establishment may have the motive to tweak convention rules so as to push a 1,200-delegate Trump across the finish line.
How will they tweak — or “rig,” if you prefer — the convention in Trump’s favor? Who knows? But the chairman of the Rules Committee will be a party hand. And if you’ve ever seen and RNC committee work, you know how much the chairman can steer the outcome. Aside from crafting the rules, the party leadership control the microphone for the relevant parts of the convention—in 2012, that microphone control was enough to suppress the will of the majority. I trust the GOP chiefs to be innovative if they feel the need to ensure Trump wins.
Nominating Trump would be a nightmare for the GOP. But in Cleveland, the party bosses may decide that it’s worse to let the delegates nominate someone else.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner’s senior political columnist.