Establishment Republicans can barely contain their excitement after the events of the past seven days.
Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with battery in Florida for an incident in which he grabbed a reporter — and then denied doing so. Then Trump spent 48 hours defending Lewandowski and insisting the reporter had made up her story. Trump followed that political car wreck with another one — telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that if abortion were ever banned, women who had the procedure should be punished. He spent the next 72 hours trying to get out from under that mistake, taking a series of confusing positions in the process.
Amid all of Trump’s problems came even more good news for the establishment: Two polls in advance of Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary showed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with a double-digit lead over Trump in the state. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker even endorsed Cruz.
For the #neverTrump movement, it was a banner week. But what will it get them?
Almost certainly Cruz, the man who began this campaign as the candidate the Republican establishment would do anything to keep from the nomination. And not just that: Someone who even the most dyed-in-the-wool Republican would be hard-pressed to argue could win 64 more electoral votes than Mitt Romney did when he lost the 2012 presidential race. (Romney got 206 electoral votes; you need 270 to be president.)
Asked to dream up a best-case scenario for the broader Republican Party coming out of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in mid-July, longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy offered this one up: “Somebody other than Trump, Cruz or [conservative radio talk show host] Mark Levin as the nominee.” But Murphy quickly added: “I don’t see a path.”
Murphy is in what I would describe as the realistic wing of the Republican Party when it comes to Trump, Cruz and the national convention. That wing acknowledges that their best-case scenario is a bad scenario — nominating a too-conservative Cruz and beginning the general election at a clear disadvantage to Hillary Clinton in the electoral college. Murphy and his brethren believe the only hope for the GOP in 2016 is to preserve majorities in the Senate and the House, something they believe Cruz might allow them to do whereas Trump would not.
But Murphy and his realism wing are not the dominant force in the GOP establishment at the moment. That position is held by a group I call the magical realism crowd — with apologies to Gabriel García Márquez.
The belief in that group is that even if Trump and Cruz go into the Cleveland convention with the most and second-most delegates, respectively, magically a more electable and establishment-friendly alternative will emerge and save the party from itself.
The names floated by the magical realism crowd — John Kasich, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan — all would likely, on paper at least, be stronger general election candidates than Trump or Cruz. But so would, on paper again, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie — all of whom wound up having more support among donors and establishment types than actual voters.
The idea that delegates on the convention floor — people who are, by and large, quite conservative and are accurately described as the base of the party — would throw over not only the top delegate getter (Trump) but also the candidate who got the second most delegates (Cruz) is decidedly implausible given what we know about the state of the GOP today.
Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster, recently conducted a focus group in St. Louis comprised of Republican voters — with the aim of understanding the Trump phenomenon and its durability. One of his big take-aways? “A brokered convention would likely backfire.”
“Republicans and Republican-leaning independents remain willing to join together in support of whoever receives the most votes,” Hart concluded in a memo reflecting on the results of the focus group. “If Trump is that person, yet fails to receive the nomination through a brokered convention, then these voters predict that their reaction would be hostile and harsh. This is true not only for Trump voters but also many Cruz supporters.”
In an election wholly defined by the Republican base’s dislike and distrust for the party’s leaders, how can you realistically expect that same base to capitulate to an establishment-favorite candidate who may not have even competed in the primary and caucus process?
You can’t. Or, at least, you shouldn’t. Magical realism in politics is a dangerous thing — it has just enough truth in it to be recognizable but not enough to make it actually doable.