No matter how the Republican presidential primary unfolds from here, all the factions of the #NeverTrump movement—the party operatives attacking him; the conservative opinion leaders holding the line against him; the Republican delegates loyal to Ted Cruz after the first ballot at the party’s July convention—face severe conundrums.
Since March, Trump has been the only candidate with a traditional path to winning an outright majority of 1,237 pledged delegates before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. More recently, it became mathematically impossible for John Kasich to win a delegate majority, and Ted Cruz would now probably have to rely on unpledged delegates to clear the victory threshold. But that already forbidding situation became even more challenging Tuesday night after Donald Trump won the New York primary in dominating fashion.
In the aftermath of Cruz’s victory in the Wisconsin primary, when the Trump campaign seemed to be floundering, it was tempting to imagine that Republicans could keep Trump far enough from 1,237 to justify denying him the nomination: Yes, Trump won vote and delegate pluralities, they could say. But he also has relatively high unfavorables within the GOP, and Republican voters are more supportive, in sum, of a Cruz-Kasich ticket, or a Cruz-Marco Rubio ticket, than they are of Trump winning the nomination.
Now that it looks like he’ll be at least close to an outright delegate majority, it’s difficult to see how anti-Trump conservatives can deny him the nomination and avoid accusations that they have rejected the discernible will of the Republican electorate.
No matter how short of 1,237 Trump falls, his argument at the convention will be simple, and completely intuitive: I might not have won in a way that requires the Republican Party to give me the nomination—but I won a moral victory. It’s in your power to deny me the nomination, but woe betide the GOP if you do. This will ring true both to his own supporters, and to GOP voters who perhaps supported a different candidate but are amenable to Trump and believe instinctually that in an election, the person with the most votes should win.
At 1,000 delegates or even 1,100 delegates, anti-Trump conservatives would have a not-quite-as-intuitive, but still-easy-to-grasp counterargument: Your plurality is real, but it is small, and we can create a ticket that better reflects the party’s preference than any ticket with you at the top. It would be dangerous and debatable, but not facially illegitimate. And there’s a meaningful distinction between the two.
After New York, anti-Trump conservatives are facing a worst-case scenario in which Trump reaches 1,237 in early June, becoming the nominee in Cleveland by acclamation, and a best-case scenario in which Trump arrives in Cleveland with somewhere near 1,200 delegates, and the Republican Party denies him the nomination solely on the basis of elite disdain.
It’s hard to game this race out with any real precision, in no small part because Kasich’s impact on the race is so nebulous. By staying in, Kasich may have denied Trump some delegates in New York, but were he to drop out, he’d free Cruz up to defeat Trump handily in Indiana. Using a conservative simulation, MSNBC’s election savant Steve Kornacki sees Trump entering the convention with 1,199 delegates—nearly 49 percent. Imagine that’s correct, and the dilemmas becomes clear. If unpledged delegates oppose Trump, the question of whether to force a second ballot will be in their hands. #NeverTrump delegates who are pledged to vote Trump on the first ballot will have to ask themselves whether they’re prepared to deny Trump the nomination on the narrowest of technicalities. Anti-Trump conservative pundits will need to weigh the competing imperatives of defeating Trump and running a candidate who enjoys the presumption of legitimacy. If you’re an anti-Trump GOP operative, now’s the time to ask whether its wise to continue attacking him in ways that will damage him in the general election.
In a narrow, zero-sum sense, it doesn’t matter if Trump takes 5 or 15 or 40 percent of the party with him if he bolts the party, since even 5 percent will probably be too much for the GOP to remain competitive in November. But there’s a real difference between defeating Trump in a way that satisfies the majority of the party, and wresting the nomination from him in a way that strikes a majority of the party as underhanded. That difference will matter when it comes time for Republicans to pick up the pieces after this primary. And what they may have lost tonight is a way to convincingly argue that they beat Trump fair and square.