So there appears to be a potentially serious problem built into the “contested convention” scenario that Republicans are concocting, in hopes of taking the nomination from Donald Trump, should he win a plurality (but not a majority) of the delegates through the voting process.
It’s this: On the one hand, some Republicans think the best way to deny Trump an outright majority (and prevent him from winning the nomination outright) is if all of his rivals stay in the race. That way, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich stand a chance of piling up more delegates than one non-Trump alternative might have — meaning that all three staying in have a better chance of collectively preventing Trump from getting 1,237 delegates, a majority, than a single anti-Trump alternative would.
The problem with this, though, is that it may make it harder, ultimately, to take the nomination from Trump even if he does fall short of a majority of the delegates. That’s because, if all three stay in, and all three split up the delegates that don’t go to Trump, that makes it more likely that Trump will end up with significantly more delegates than the runner-up does — making the scenario in which he loses the nomination after a contested convention even harder to defend.
In his big speech last week attacking Trump, Mitt Romney floated the idea that GOP leaders should encourage Ohio Republicans to vote for Kasich and Florida Republicans to vote for Rubio, in effect saying that the non-Trump candidates should collaborate to deny Trump a majority of the delegates. That would be hard to pull off — voters might not want to waste their votes on the possibility that such a strategy might work, and might prefer to vote for the candidate they like best. But even so, all three GOP non-Trump candidates could simply stay in to make denying Trump an outright win more likely.
But that might result in each one of the three ending up with fewer delegates than any single alternative to Trump might amass — inadvertently giving Trump a bigger delegate lead over the number-two finisher and making him look far more like the leading choice of GOP voters.
“The danger of the field being too big is that the frontrunner’s lead is larger, because the rest of the electorate is divided up, and more likely the number-two candidate can’t get above 1,000 delegates,” Charlie Spies, a veteran Republican campaign lawyer who has worked for the Republican National Committee, tells me.
Talking Points Memo interviewed several GOP strategists and political analysts and similarly concluded that if Trump went to the convention with “substantial” plurality of the delegates, using a convention fight to stop him there would carry “major political risks.”
Republican strategist John Feehery seconds that notion. “If Trump has a big lead, but not a majority of the delegates, it’s very difficult to take the nomination away from him,” Feehery tells me. “It’s a legitimacy question. And it’s a political problem. It could split the party.”
However, Republicans might still have little choice but to pursue this strategy, because it makes denying Trump a majority of the delegates through the voting the most likely outcome.
“The advantage of the collective action scenario is that you are dividing the electorate up, and that keeps the front runner as far away from the magic number as possible,” Spies says. “If people started dropping out, there would be no reason to believe their voters’ second choice would go to the anti-Trump candidate, likely Cruz, as opposed to going to Trump, which could push him over the magic number.”
And that’s the crux of the dilemma Republicans face. If all three non-Trump candidates stay in, it could ultimately make it harder to defend taking the nomination from Trump at the convention, should his delegate lead end up being substantial. Yet that still remains the most likely way of preventing him from winning the nomination outright in the first place.