If the polls are right, Ted Cruz will win today’s Wisconsin primary. That won’t make it any more likely that Cruz could get a majority of Republican delegates (which is far out of reach for him), but it will make it less likely that Donald Trump will manage to win outright; most current projections show him falling just a bit short of the 1,237 delegates he needs.
If we get to that contested convention, there will be three real options before the Republican Party: Trump, Cruz, or someone else. And the party is beginning to coalesce around the idea that if it has to be someone else, it should be Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
While nobody thinks that the GOP can emerge from this process at anything other than a disadvantage, you’re going to start seeing people make the case that Ryan is the only one who has a hope of delivering the party from catastrophe. “Top Republicans are becoming increasingly vocal about their long-held belief that Speaker Paul Ryan will wind up as the nominee, perhaps on the fourth ballot at a chaotic Cleveland convention,” writes Politico’s Mike Allen. Charles Koch is saying privately that in a contested convention, Ryan is a “shoo-in” for the nomination.
Which might happen. But that doesn’t mean things would be any less bad for Republicans.
In brief, here’s how the pro-Ryan argument goes. Option One is Donald Trump, whose nomination would be an extinction-level event for the GOP. His unfavorable ratings are in the 60s, he’s hated by women and Hispanics and just about everybody else, and he would not only lose the election but deliver the Senate and possibly even the House to the Democrats as well. Option Two, Ted Cruz, isn’t much better. He’d produce an update of the disastrous 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, with a candidacy based on uncompromising hard-right ideology the broad public doesn’t share, helpfully embodied in a uniquely repellent individual. As Option Three, Ryan mitigates these problems by offering a more personally appealing face for the party, a friendly, knowledgeable person who can take the party’s message to the country in a way Trump or Cruz can’t.
The trouble is that nominating Ryan brings its own set of difficulties. The first and most obvious is that a contested convention where party leaders install their own candidate against the will of their voters will validate everything those voters have come to believe about the establishment: that it’s out of touch, that it doesn’t know how to win, that it doesn’t care about what they think, and that it views them with nothing but contempt. According to a new McClatchy poll, 65 percent of Republicans say that if Trump doesn’t get the nomination, it should go to someone who ran for president this year. Other polls in recent weeks have found similar numbers when they asked variations on this question: However you put it, at least six in ten Republican voters seem opposed to the white knight scenario. Which means that come fall, significant numbers of those Trump and Cruz voters might choose to stay home.
It wouldn’t just be the manner in which Ryan got the nomination that would infuriate anti-establishment Republicans. It would also be the fact that as much as anyone, he represents the elite GOP consensus on economic issues. Unlike Trump, he’s an advocate of free trade, his zeal for upper-income tax cuts is as strong as anyone’s, and there’s no more prominent proponent in Washington of privatizing Medicare. He may be no more sensible than Trump on economics (Matt O’Brien explains here why the two men’s views on government spending are equally fantastical), but he’s not going to be making any populist pitches. So Ryan couldn’t sustain that anger that’s making at least some Republicans excited about this year’s election.
There’s also a misperception within Washington about Ryan’s appeal to the public. For years, he has gotten glowing press coverage, as he has convinced members of the media that he’s a serious policy wonk (despite the abundance of magic asterisks in all his budget plans), and that he’s simultaneously an up-and-comer climbing rapidly up the ladder and one who isn’t ambitious to any unseemly degree. But there’s little reason to think that the electorate does or would share that high opinion of him. Ryan didn’t exactly set the world on fire as a vice presidential candidate four years ago, and Democrats would have no trouble painting him as a representative of the elite whose main goals are to cut taxes for the wealthy and dismantle Medicare.
And even if Trump and Cruz are unappealing to voters in special ways, much of the GOP’s disadvantage is already baked in to the fall election. After all the talk about deportations and walls on the southern border, are Latino voters going to be won back to the party by some friendly words from Paul Ryan? Don’t bet on it. Could Ryan convince voters that the party that just tore itself apart in what will have been an orgy of anger and chaos in Cleveland is now ready to offer steady, responsible leadership? That seems unlikely.
Ryan himself has said has said that the nominee ought to be someone who ran the primaries — and that he’s not interested in riding in at the last moment to save the party from itself. But you may recall that he said the same thing when people began talking about him becoming Speaker — not interested, it should be someone else — until he eventually allowed Republicans to beg him to take the job.
The problem Republicans face is that as bad as their first two options are, Ryan isn’t much better. He may pick up some votes that Trump or Cruz wouldn’t, but he’d also lose votes as disgruntled base Republicans stayed home. But on the bright side, a Ryan loss would set up Ted Cruz perfectly for his 2020 run. At least Republicans would have that to look forward to.