At first glance, the #FreeTheDelegates movement is the most ludicrous play yet, timed — with special self-defeating brilliance — right after Trump swept the last few hundred available delegates. As my colleague Ed O'Keefe reports, the movement now counts "hundreds" of delegates as allies — a number that sounds less impressive when you realize that it's less than the 559 delegates elected for Cruz (R-Tex.).
But the risk-reward ratio of a convention coup is better than the one that confronted #NeverTrump campaigners before this month. Seriously. The least democratic method of robbing a primary winner is, ironically, the one with the fewest immediate downsides.
It's exciting, and turns the establishment into the resistance
One problem for the April-May effort to defeat Trump by locking up loyal delegates at state conventions was that it looked a lot like a con job. Trump, with his signature combination of savvy and hubris, began telling audiences that the primaries constituted a "rigged game." By every indication, his messaging won out. In Indiana, the state where Trump finally chased away his remaining rivals, 67 percent of voters said that "the winner of the primary" should be the nominee.
But there are no more primaries, and no more voters to win until November. The #FreeTheDelegates campaign has quickly recast the next month as a struggle between a doomed and fraudulent candidate and rebels who can do what generations before them should have — wrest control of the party. For the first time in ages, tea party activists elected as Cruz supporters are mouthing the same rhetoric as Kristol and others among the D.C. elite.
It would limit Trump's ability to run as a spoiler
The Republican Party will pick a nominee on July 21. By that date, the deadline for getting an independent candidate on the ballot will have expired in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. The deadline for ballot access in most states would be 10 days away. If the nomination were wrested away in Cleveland, and Trump were to fulfill his occasional promise of running as a third-party candidate, his puny national organization would need to scramble for signatures — 15,000, for example, from his native New York.
That's not to say Trump would be off the map. Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, points out that the "sore loser" laws that prevent, say, defeated Senate candidates from running as third-party candidates are not applicable to presidential candidates. "A presidential candidate appears on the ballot as a stand-in for Electoral College electors," he said. "It doesn't matter whether he won the primaries or lost them. There's only one candidate for history who was kept off the ballot because he ran in the major party primary first, and that was Gary Johnson in Michigan in 2012."
Still, had #NeverTrump defeated or disqualified the candidate in February, he'd have had plenty of time to get onto ballots. If he is brought low in Cleveland, he would need to move with a speed unseen so far in this campaign. He'd need to get around the ballot laws in states like Florida by forming or joining new small parties. And if he did, a Trump spoiler bid could have the effect that the "third party" plotters were counting on when they imagined running against him — conservative voters who would have sat out the election turning out for the spoiler, and voting Republican down the ballot.
A post-coup general election would be (theoretically) winnable
On July 2, the voters of Australia will go to the polls and elect a new government. Less than two months will have passed since the dissolution of Parliament, which kicked off that election. Most modern democracies have elections of similar length, with a couple of months of heavy campaigning.
America's elections, where the first primary votes are cast nearly a year before the real contest, are — let's use a pleasant, neutral word — unique. It's been a very long time since a campaign started with a party convention. But it's not unheard of, and the rulebook for running a quicker blitz of a campaign exists. A post-coup candidate would functionally have three and a half months to win the election, with Republican strategists likely clamoring to jump aboard. He'd start well behind presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but he could build on the work that down-ballot candidates and groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have done already to target voters.
Would it be easy for victorious coup plotters to win an election? No. The thought leaders of the "movement" compare their task to the one that faced Democrats in 1968, after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The Democrats lost that election. But the #FreeTheDelegates crowd sees 2016 as a surefire loss if it allows Trump to lead the party, and that allows it to act out where other movements might be careful.