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The GOP’s Harebrained Stop-Trump Effort Is Backfiring

After Trump's huge East Coast victories, the Cruz-Kasich pact looks even less likely to work—unless they form a unity ticket.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

While Donald Trump’s remaining Republican primary opponents—Ted Cruz and John Kasich—keep resorting to the kinds of desperate tactics that typically occur to mediocre screenwriters, it is nevertheless possible to imagine a feasible, though still implausible, scenario in which they “beat” Trump without ripping the GOP completely in half.

Anti-Trump Republicans know that even after he dominated Tuesday’s five East Coast primaries, Trump is likely to arrive at the nominating convention in Cleveland this summer with healthy delegate and popular-vote leads over his remaining opponents, but slightly shy of the delegate threshold required to win by acclamation. They have been much slower to accept that Trump will have a strong moral claim to the nomination even if, procedurally speaking, Republicans don’t have to give it to him—that whatever the the convention rules state, they have little bearing on the abstract concept of legitimacy. The difficult truth is that the closer Trump comes to the 1,237 delegates needed for uncontested nomination, the stronger his argument to be the legitimate banner-carrier for the party will be—and the likelier the Republican electorate will be to cast a jaundiced eye at any other nominee.

A scenario in which Republicans “beat” Trump without shattering the trust of GOP voters would require them to make a similarly persuasive claim to legitimacy. Trump will be the plurality winner, but if Cruz and Kasich maximize their votes and their pledged delegates, they could arrive in Cleveland with competitive combined delegate and vote hauls. Mix in Marco Rubio’s pledged delegates, for good measure, and Trump might actually be “beat.”

But that argument only washes if the people who won the votes and the delegates are represented on the ticket that emerges from the convention—with Cruz (the second place finisher) at the top of it, and Kasich as his running mate. The actual plan Cruz and Kasich have concocted, however, isn’t aimed at Trump’s claim to legitimacy at all. It is instead a narrow, and possibly ill-fated, one meant to shave down his delegate lead. And it completely fails to lay the groundwork for what happens if they succeed.

Trump’s enormous victories on Tuesday night—when he swept the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut primaries with more than 50 percent of the votes in each state—underscore how fantastical any Stop Trump strategy is. But the strategy Cruz and Kasich have actually settled on is more outlandish and haphazard still.

Cruz and Kasich have devised an uneasy non-aggression accord. The theory is that if Kasich pulls out of next Tuesday’s Indiana primary, leaving Cruz free to wage a single-front war against Trump, and if Cruz reciprocates in Oregon and New Mexico—which vote on May 17 and June 7, respectivelythey can reduce Trump’s delegate haul relative to what he’d win if all three men campaigned in all three states. Then, when the convention rolls around, Trump’s delegate total will be lower and the argument for denying him the nomination stronger. Theoretically, Trump could eclipse the 1,237 threshold absent Cruz-Kasich collusion, but will be held just under as a result of it.

The Cruz-Kasich pact’s biggest weakness is its glaring “and then what?” problem—i.e, what happens if they succeed in stopping Trump on the first ballot? But its most immediate flaw is that it might backfire on its own terms.

The strategic thinking behind this quasi-detente is extremely hazy—a fact that may explain why both Cruz and Kasich (but particularly Kasich) keep undermining it. Before the two campaigns announced the agreement, Trump was leading both men in Indiana, where the overall winner stands to gain a large pool of statewide delegates, and the remainder are allocated by each candidate’s performance at the congressional district level. By ceasing campaign activities in Indiana, Kasich may put more congressional districts in play, but he’ll only deny Trump an outright victory next week if his voters break overwhelmingly for Cruz.

That outcome is complicated by Kasich’s refusal to tell his supporters to vote for Cruz, by his stated wish that Indiana Republicans vote for him—on Monday, he said, “they ought to vote for me!”—and by his more recent suggestion that the entire plan isn’t really about stopping Trump per se at all, but about his view that Trump will be a weak foil for Hillary Clinton. (Furthermore, anecdotal reports suggest some Cruz and Kasich supporters see the collusion as untoward, and are thus defecting to Trump.)

Even if Kasich’s partial withdrawal from Indiana costs Trump a few delegates, though, Trump could feasibly make them right back up in Oregon and New Mexico, both of which award delegates proportionately. As Cruz’s support in those states dwindles, both Kasich’s and Trump’s are likely to climb. Even if Kasich ultimately benefits more than Trump from Cruz’s absence in the West, Trump will almost certainly do better there than he would have if Cruz weren’t standing aside. And in either case, Trump will come away with more votes in all three states than he would have if Cruz and Kasich kept fighting in every battleground.

This is a plan, in other words, that only accomplishes something if Cruz wins outright in Indiana—and may accomplish nothing at all unless it means the difference between Trump winning outright, and Trump arriving in Cleveland exceedingly close to outright victory. But if these are the thoughts animating the Cruz and Kasich campaigns, they also have to be prepared for what happens after Trump loses the first ballot on the thinnest of technicalities, and then wages a pitched public-opinion campaign—during the convention, and possibly after—based on broadly shared democratic norms. They have done no such thing.

Setting aside the question of whether the pact represents an optimal way to weaken Trump at the convention mathematically, it does nothing to blunt Trump’s appeal to fairness. They could engage the fairness argument if they teamed up on a ticket that had more delegates combined than Trump has on its own. But while Cruz and Kasich struggle to adhere to their own arrangement, they also claim to be vetting potential running mates individually, reflecting a shared sense that after dispatching with Trump, delegates will award the nomination to one of the two of them. Either or both candidates might be wrong about this. But they can’t both be right. Cruz is reportedly taking a close look at tapping Carly Fiorina, who won a grand total of one delegate in Iowa and zero delegates in New Hampshire before dropping out of the race altogether. Kasich may be vetting imaginary friends, for all we know.

In either case, they will be asking Republicans to advance a ticket that has far less support than Trump has on his own. Trump will decry the outcome as illegitimate, and millions of Republican voters will agree with him. What Cruz and Kasich are attempting can only work if they form a unity ticket in the end.

This is the crucial difference between a scenario in which two candidates really combine forces to “beat” Trump, and one in which they loosely coordinate to minimize his delegate lead without a clear plan for what follows. Yes, Trump increased that delegate lead on Tuesday. But more importantly, and more abstractly, he clarified the fact that he will enter Cleveland as the presumptive and legitimate leader of the Republican Party—even if he falls slightly short of the delegate threshold. That adds up to two separate problems. #NeverTrump conservatives are running a dubious experiment to address the first one. They have no plan to address the second one—the one that’s most key to party unity—and are making it a little bit worse with each passing day.

Want more on the 2016 elections? Check out an episode of the New Republic’s podcast Primary Concerns, hosted by Brian Beutler: