Is it time for the GOP establishment to surrender to Trump?
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) —
If a traditional Republican presidential candidate had won seven states on Super Tuesday and had amassed more than 300 delegates in the first 15 races with support across many demographics in both northern and southern states, the party might be expected to now embrace that candidate as its likely nominee.
Donald Trump is not a traditional candidate.
On Tuesday, as Trump dominated races in several states, Republican leaders in Congress publicly chastised the billionaire for not being critical enough of white supremacist David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reportedly has advised vulnerable senators to distance themselves from Trump if he wins the nomination. Super PACs supporting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are preparing to spend millions in a desperate attempt to slow Trump's momentum.
While the GOP's ongoing resistance to the candidate who has led the field in nearly every national poll since July is atypical, experts say Trump's own behavior and his policy positions have justified their concerns because the stakes are so high.
"The party establishment fears that if he is nominated, there is a distinct possibility of a blowout by the Democrats, and that blowout will have down-the-ballot implications as well," said Glenn Altschuler, Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. They believe Trump could cost them congressional seats and even state and local elections.
"He's an unusual front-runner and I think there's a lot of concern about how he plays down ticket," said Kirby Goidel, professor of communications at Texas A&M University. However, Goidel noted it is not unusual for candidates to break with the party's nominee if it helps in their local election.
Democrats are likely to paint Trump as a serial liar, a racist, a xenophobe, a sexist, and a con artist whose business failures and bankruptcies hurt middle class Americans. Those attacks have gained little traction among GOP primary voters, but the general election audience may prove more receptive.
There is a more optimistic perspective on a Trump nomination that fewer Republicans have openly voiced. As Trump has claimed, he may be able to expand the party.
"The counter-scenario to that is that Trump is appealing to many, many voters who haven't voted before," Altschuler said. Trump's support among white blue-collar workers, particularly in the Midwest, could put states in play that Republicans have not won in a long time.
"You can understand why Donald Trump gives establishment Republicans the willies," said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University. What they can do about it is less clear.
Career politicians attacking Trump may buttress his argument that he is the right candidate to blow up the D.C. establishment.
"The more he's attacked by them, the more he's attacked by the mainstream media, the greater the proof that he's on the right track, in terms of his supporters," Carroll said.
While the Super Tuesday results reinforced many of the trends surrounding Trump's coalition of support, they also provided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich with justification to stay in the race until at least March 15. On that date, delegates start to be awarded on a winner-take-all basis in some contests and Rubio and Kasich will be defending their home states against Trump's insurrection.
"The way to look at it...is to understand that, in 2016, March 15 is Super-Duper Tuesday," Altschuler said. Rubio and Kasich could build on victories in Florida and Ohio to block Trump from securing the nomination, but if Trump wins, Republicans may finally surrender.
"At 11:37 on March 15, if Kasich and Rubio don't win, they will look at the election returns and begin to deal with the prospect of a Trump nomination."
The question on March 16 for Republicans who still oppose Trump will be whether to pressure Kasich or Rubio to get out of the race and coalesce the anti-Trump vote or to encourage them to stay in and chip away at Trump's lead to keep him from winning a majority of delegates.
The problem with the first option is that the only person the party's establishment might be more actively opposed to than Trump is Cruz, who is currently in second place in the delegate count and beat Trump in three states on Tuesday.
"Cruz cannot beat Trump," Altschuler said. "Cruz will not be nominated. Cruz is loathed by his colleagues in the Senate and others with whom he has worked."
"There would still be some concern if Cruz was the front-runner, but maybe less so," Goidel said. Cruz at least is a consistent conservative, unlike Trump who was a Democrat until recently.
Barring an unlikely collapse of Trump's campaign, Rubio and Kasich probably cannot win a majority of delegates themselves at this point, so pushing the fight to the Republican National Convention in July may be the best they can hope for.
As comments by McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday demonstrated, Republicans unsatisfied with Trump must grapple with how to disown his outrageous comments without alienating his supporters.
"I think we are seeing, and we are going to continue to see, from Republicans contortions the likes of which we have not seen since the decline of the Barnum and Bailey Circus," Altschuler said. "People like Paul Ryan denouncing Trump, especially Trump's more bigoted comments, and in the same sentence saying, 'I will support the nominee of the Republican Party.'"
This conflict could play itself out in an ugly way on the convention floor in Cleveland if Trump does not win a majority of delegates in the primaries, a prospect Altschuler described as "in almost any outcome a catastrophe for the Republican Party."
"If Trump is running the table of primaries and is denied the nomination, I think we can predict that he's not going to be very happy," he said.
"The Republicans are faced with a very difficult proposition," he said. "They think it very likely that a Trump candidacy will mean that both the top of the ticket and candidates down ballot will go down in flames, but they also recognize that if Trump somehow has the nomination snatched from him when he has won the overwhelming majority of the primaries, that the candidate who is put in his place is also going to go down in flames."
The ultimate nominee in that scenario might even be someone other than the candidates currently running.
"I think that would just be a nightmare for the party," Goidel said.
He did observe, though, that Trump's supporters would have nowhere else to go in November but to vote for the nominee or stay home.
"It's hard to imagine that his voters would go and vote for Hillary Clinton," he said.
In the long run, accepting Trump might prove to be the less damaging option.
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told the Washington Post Wednesday that the party should work to make Trump the strongest nominee possible instead of indulging in a "fantasy effort" to stop him.
"Trump has earned the nomination," said Castellanos, who once pitched an anti-Trump ad campaign to GOP donors, in an email to the Post. "He won it, fair and square and we should respect that. Donald Trump whipped the establishment and it is too late for the limp GOP establishment to ask their mommy to step in and rewrite the rules because they were humiliated for their impotence."
Republicans who are so adamantly rejecting Trump may be underestimating his potential strengths as a general election candidate. Following his victories Tuesday night, Trump held a press conference where he attempted to present a more moderate, unifying message that made Democrats nervous.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote that Trump's argument that Democrats in power have failed to fix the country's problems could be "deadly."
"He's clearly at this stage trying to look beyond the primary to the general election, much the same as Hillary Clinton is doing," Carroll said. "And I think he's smart enough to know that virtually every presidential candidate scuttles toward the center when repositioning for the general election."
Shifting to the center carries risks for Trump, though.
"The high wire act for Trump is not to look to his hardcore supporters as someone who trims sails for the sake of expediency," Carroll said. "The true believers don't want to hear that the wall on the Mexican border is just an opening offer in some kind of bargaining session. They want the wall."
"It'll be extremely difficult, I think impossible, for him to leave behind the extreme positions that he has outlined in the general election," Altschuler said.
"Democrats won't let him, and secondly, his base won't let him," he said. Trump candidacy is predicated on appealing to angry voters, and if he turns away from that, they may dismiss him as just another unreliable politician.
"He's got a very, very difficult task ahead of him," Altschuler said.
If Trump wins the nomination, many Republicans expect they will face a difficult task in the fall as well.