The #NeverTrump forces have been vindicated. Donald Trump really is an atrocious candidate, and he really is heading for a terrible loss. However, they’ve misjudged the difficulty in fielding a third candidate as an alternative.
It is perhaps not surprising that no Republican of note wants to run against the Republican nominee. Despite the unique circumstances of this race, that kind of run would be a long-shot at best. Moreover, in the mind of many GOP operatives and potential candidates, it risks dividing the conservative vote (even though a third candidate or the Libertarian ticket seems to draw from both major parties). No one wants to get blamed for “electing Hillary Clinton.” With the party apparatus “falling in line” it would be a lonely run, to be sure. Most important for the ever-ambitious pols, it might doom the third candidate’s future, to the extent one thinks the GOP survives as a party.
A third-candidate effort surely was worth a try and perhaps Trump’s atrocious performance and sinking polls in recent days will prompt some Republicans to reconsider. Nevertheless, increasingly it seems the better route is to use the convention to dump Trump and replace him with just about any plausible candidate who will do it. After all, with Clinton’s awful approval numbers, just about any Republican governor, senator or U.S. representative would probably be the favorite over Clinton.
The advantages over a third candidate run are significant. There would be no splitting the vote with the Republican nominee; this is about getting a different nominee from the convention. There is less risk to a volunteer to take Trump’s spot since he steps up only if the delegates dump Trump. If the effort fails and Trump goes on to lose (as is increasingly likely) the volunteer would be looked upon as a wise hero who might have saved the party.
Three issues remain: 1.) Can the delegates unbind themselves? 2.) Why does it make sense to have one or more volunteers lined up? 3.) How can #NeverTrump voices make #1 and #2 more likely?
The bound delegates issue turns out to be less serious than many thought. Jay Cost explains, “The delegates are not technically bound to vote for the winner of the primaries and caucuses. Under the rules of the Republican party, they first have to vote to bind themselves to those results — meaning that they are, in truth, free to do whatever they like.” In other words, they can through the rules committee or through an open vote on the convention floor decide to allow conscience to be their guide. And, as we have argued, the delegates have every right to make Trump’s original promise — to release his tax returns — a condition of placing a name in nomination. If he doesn’t want to keep his promise to the voters and delegates, then they need not feel obligated to stick with him.
There’s a substantial benefit in having in advance one or more volunteers to replace Trump: Delegates don’t want to jump ship without a place to land. Certainly, the other 2016 contenders could say they’d be willing to do it if the delegates decided to dump Trump — or if Trump decided to withdraw over a standoff on his tax returns. If no one from that group raises his or her hand,78 other Republicans who have already refused to endorse Trump (e.g. Sen. Ben Sasse(Neb.)) can certainly say they’ll do it if the delegates decide Trump is an avoidable disaster. Mind you, none of these candidates have to do anything other than announce their availability, unless and until the delegates act.
So how, then, does the dump Trump effort get altitude?
First, simply by raising this as a feasible option, former 2016 contenders with delegates get invested in working the rules committee and the convention. They have a base of delegates and have relationships with the officially unbound delegates (e.g. 54 from Pennsylvania). Working in unison they may well get a majority to forgo Trump on the first ballot.
Second, a group (since Republicans are forever looking for safety in numbers) of Republicans who already endorsed Trump should make crystal clear that their promise was to support the nominee, not Trump specifically. Hey, if the delegates decide to open things up, why wouldn’t they support the delegates’ right to do so and anyone who comes out on top? Paving the way for the delegates to act would restore the luster and respect previously enjoyed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (whose Trump support is going poorly as old friends and the media pounce upon the contradiction between acknowledging someone is an ignorant racist and yet supporting that same person). Other Republicans would look like statesman if they did the same. By stepping forward to give the dump Trump effort a thumbs up, Republican leaders would remind their fellow Republicans just how unfit Trump is. It would give the party leaders the chance to explain how vital it is to have a candidate who is actually more likable than Clinton and has not offended virtually every segment of the population other than Trump’s employees, family members and Fox News hosts.
Third, those who considered a third-candidate run but ultimately decided it was not feasible should endorse the dump Trump idea. The quality and number of such people would be impressive. It would encourage a sense of urgency among delegates.
Finally, donors can shut their checkbooks. If Trump cannot fund a campaign and donors won’t fund the RNC’s substitute campaign operation, why even Reince Priebus might come around. (Donors can still fund Senate and House candidates, of course.) Donors can take a public pledge: Not a dime unless Trump gets dumped.
We suggest all of this makes more sense than spending time and money trying to get a nonexistent candidate on the ballot in dozens of states. With the convention less than 5 weeks away, the dump Trump effort should get going.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.