THE MORNING PLUM:

Some fresh reporting out this morning pulls the curtain back on something that could help decide whether Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination: The Trump operation’s evolving plot to thwart GOP plans to nominate someone else at a contested convention.

The new reporting also highlights something else, however: The hidden problem that has always been built in to the Stop Trump movement’s plan to block Trump at the Cleveland convention in July.

NBC News’s Katy Tur and Ari Melber have the details on the Trump operation’s evolving strategy. The game plan is basically this: In preparation for the possibility that Trump may fall short of the majority of delegates he needs to clinch the nomination outright, Trump operatives are already trying to lock down the support of a few hundred delegates who (for various reasons, such as party rules in states) are not bound to vote for any candidate:

The campaign could obtain signed, public commitments from those delegates in June — signaling to the rest of the party that Trump will be the nominee. Sources in the Trump campaign say this approach thwarts a key premise of the “Stop Trump” effort, which assumes a long floor fight if Trump finishes the primaries without a delegate majority.
The math shows that this is an achievable path. There are now 323 delegates currently up for grabs on the first ballot. These are delegates who backed [Marco] Rubio and [Ben] Carson or hail from states that don’t bind their vote, (such as Colorado and North Dakota).
If Trump falls short by 100 delegates, he could close the gap by locking in one out of three of those unbound delegates. That is certainly possible, considering he has won about 37 percent of all votes so far.

In other words, even if Trump does not win a majority of delegates through primary voting, he could still lock down enough additional support to win a majority of the delegates on the first convention ballot, averting a protracted floor struggle that drags through multiple rounds of balloting.

But if nominating Trump would prove a disaster for the GOP, as many GOP elites have decided, why would unbound delegates help make it easier for that to happen? Here’s where the deeper problem with the contested convention strategy may come into play.

Both Ted Cruz and John Kasich continue to fight to emerge as the person who might be nominated instead of Trump. But some Republicans have told me that they worry that, by leading the two to divide up the non-Trump delegates, this could result in the runner-up finishing with far fewer delegates than he otherwise might have. That could make Trump’s delegate lead over the runner-up far larger than it otherwise might have been, making him look more like the undisputed winner.

Trump’s operatives will likely cite such a large lead to persuade the unbound delegates that he’s the rightful victor, and this may be a more persuasive case to make if his delegate lead is larger, due to Cruz and Kasich dividing up the non-Trump spoils. In this context, Trump’s suggestion that there might be “riots” if he is denied the nomination begins to look like it has real method to it. Whether Trump meant this as a threat of violence or not, the message he sent (and continues to send) is that, if he is denied the nomination, he will do all he can to wreak as much havoc as possible for the party, at a minimum by blasting the whole process as illegitimate in the eyes of his supporters, who appear rather disconcertingly willing to accept Trump’s word at face value.

If the result of that is millions of Republican voters staying home, that could put GOP control of the Senate at risk. As Ross Douthat puts it, Trump could function as “a kind of permanent roadshow,” constantly attacking the GOP nominee and “urging his supporters to never vote Republican again.”

The game here is obviously for those unbound delegates to have this nightmare scenario in the back of their minds as Trump operatives woo them in the pre-convention phase. If Trump has a large delegate lead, they might decide, why not sign on with him and avoid a messy battle that might destroy the GOP’s general election chances as effectively as nominating Trump would? Meanwhile, as Jonathan Bernstein has explained, there might be an added incentive for Republicans to get this all wrapped up before the convention:

If no one has the nomination locked up in June, everyone involved — candidates, delegates and other party actors — will feel intense pressure to get this done before the convention. The purpose of national conventions today is advertising for the party and its candidate, and that opportunity would be forfeited if the convention was convened without a nominee. The worst case would be day after day of deadlock under the full gaze of the national media with controversies heating up.

If Trump is far ahead of both his two rivals in delegates, accepting him might look like the most plausible — or the least undesirable — path. Obviously this might not work, because GOP elites and delegates may continue to hold to their #NeverTrump resolve. But it might!

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A majority of Republican insiders say Donald Trump should not get the GOP presidential nomination if he falls short of winning a majority of delegates – even if Trump amasses more than any of his opponents….The majority of insiders who want the party to choose someone else if Trump only wins a plurality of delegates said they are motivated by questions of electability, Trump’s capricious campaign style and personality.

But the rub is that there is a deep divide between GOP elites and party insiders, who view a Trump nomination as disastrous for the party, and GOP voters, who haven’t gotten this memo. So we’ll see if this resolve lasts.

A key reason why Trump has such a strong advantage is the makeup of the remaining states. Many of them have characteristics that favor the reality star, for example, because they are in northeast with crops of less ideological, lower middle class and working class voters, where he has done well so far this convention season. So, the billionaire is confident of prospering in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey for example.

New York and Pennsylvania vote in April, but we may not have clarity until states like New Jersey and California (the delegate motherlode) vote in June.

* AMERICANS REJECT GOP ARGUMENTS ABOUT COURT: A new CNN poll finds that 64 percent of Americans think the GOP Senate leadership should hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination, and 52 percent think he should be confirmed. And:

Most Americans, 57%, say the choice for the next justice should rest with Obama and not with the next president…just 26 percent of Republicans agree.

Americans don’t buy the excuse — er, argument — Republicans are making to justify doing nothing. But GOP voters do: more evidence this is all about keeping the base happy.

* COURT BATTLE ROILS TOP SENATE RACE: The New York Times looks at how GOP Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most vulnerable incumbents, is using his refusal to consider Garland to rally the base against a tough challenge from Russ Feingold:

Mr. Johnson, without any pretense, is boasting that he and his Republican colleagues are preventing Mr. Obama from tilting the ideological balance of the court to the left….Democrats, including Mr. Feingold, say they are confident that Mr. Johnson is making a politically fatal mistake by playing to the Republican Party’s conservative base in a state that despite the party’s recent inroads has voted Democratic in the past seven presidential elections.

Apparently moderate and independent voters don’t matter! We’ll see how they react if Trump tightens his grip on the nomination and Johnson’s position becomes that Trump should get to pick the next justice and Obama shouldn’t.

* IS TEA PARTY SENATOR GETTING DUMPED? Speaking of the Wisconsin Senate race, Roll call’s Alex Roarty reports that the major outside groups are not saying whether they will spend big on behalf of Senator Johnson: The reason seems obvious:

Early surveys of the race paint a grim picture for Johnson: Since April of last year, five of six polls from Marquette Law School have found Feingold sporting a double-digit lead, including a mid-February survey that found the Democrat winning by 12 points.

Wisconsin is among the easiest wins for Dems, but knocking off Johnson — one of the most extreme Tea Partyers in the Senate, one lifted to victory as part of the 2010 wave — would still be a big prize.

* ELIZABETH WARREN IS ‘CHEERING BERNIE ON’: Even if Bernie Sanders’s chances of winning the Dem nomination are looking more and more remote, Senator Elizabeth Warren says he should keep on fighting:

“He has put the right issues on the table both for the Democratic Party and for the country in general so I’m still cheering Bernie on…He’s out there. He fights from the heart. This is who Bernie is.”

Presuming Clinton does win the nomination, it will be obvious in retrospect that the Bernie challenge was a very good thing for her and the Democratic Party alike.

 * AND GOP STRATEGISTS FEAR TRUMPED UP GENDER GAP: Donald Trump tweeted an unflattering juxtaposition of Ted Cruz’s wife with his own, and the Post reports that GOP strategists are worried that this portends the worst for the general election:

Many fear that the insults are a harbinger of the gutter rhetoric to come if he faces Clinton in November….”I have some very real concerns should he become the nominee. I think it would be catastrophic for our party,” said GOP strategist Katie Packer, who leads the Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump super PAC. “Half of the reason why I’m fighting so hard to stop Donald Trump is because I think he’s a walking, talking stereotype of a sexist misogynistic pig.”

Can you say yuuge gender gap?