With the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas dramatizing again the divisions plaguing the GOP, the unfolding battle for the presidential nomination suggests the growing odds of a runaway convention that could choose an unelectable nominee and bring a nightmare outcome for the party.
Growing talk of a “brokered convention” misses the essential fact of GOP politics today. A significant majority of Republican voters in next year’s presidential primaries and caucuses will almost certainly feel an intense antipathy toward the insider power brokers and large corporate-oriented donors who run the GOP establishment today.
This fact has translated into virtual unanimity of current polling that finds more than 50 percent support for the combined vote of the trio of candidates who embody this GOP anti-establishment movement: Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.
The data suggests that the most likely outcome of the nomination campaign will be that a majority of delegates — and GOP voters nationally — will be hostile to the party establishment.
To make matters worse for the Republican establishment, the intensity of opinion among GOP voters who feel contemptuous of the political establishment in Washington suggests that their percentage of voter turnout in this year’s primaries and caucuses will bring the vote for these three candidates even higher than current polling suggests.
To dramatize the magnitude of the ascendance of the anti-establishment wing of the GOP, consider the new Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday. In this survey, support for Trump stands at 38 percent, support for Cruz stands at 15 percent and support for Carson stands at 12 percent. This poll puts the net percentage for these three vehemently anti-establishment Republican candidates at a whopping 65 percent — not to mention the turnout advantage that probably exists for them because of the intensity of opinion of their supporters.
Presidential nominees are chosen at national conventions by delegates, not power brokers or insiders. The fallacy of the “brokered convention” argument is that proponents wrongly believe the “brokers” will be party barons such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; the data suggests that the most likely outcome of the nomination campaign will be that a majority of delegates — and GOP voters nationally — will be hostile to the party establishment.
A more likely scenario than a brokered convention is a runaway convention, where the establishment loses control of the convention and the outcome as delegates from the anti-establishment wing take over, threatening first a convention walk-out and then a third-party candidacy if the will of their majority is denied.
The potential nightmare for the GOP establishment is compounded by a second fact, one whose importance is dramatically underestimated by political analysts and the media: The political views of anti-establishment GOP voters and candidates are dramatically out of touch with mainstream America. A runaway convention taken over by anti-establishment delegates would create high odds of a dramatic Election Day victory by Hillary Clinton large enough to return control of the Senate, and potentially the House, to Democrats.
Consider Trump, who is sometimes called “Teflon Don” by pundits who falsely suggest that rules of traditional politics do not apply to him. As with many half-truths, it is the untrue half that becomes destructive, in this case to Republicans. While the real estate mogul may be called “Teflon Don” in GOP primaries, he would become a Velcro death ray that could destroy Republicans in the general election. The very reasons that make Trump popular in the GOP make him likely to lose in a landslide to Clinton, according to polls. Ditto Cruz.
The pressure from GOP leaders will momentarily become excruciating on lagging candidates such as Jeb Bush to withdraw from the race and endorse a center-right candidate such as Marco Rubio, who consistently runs slightly ahead of Clinton in polls.
If GOP barons wait too long, they may find themselves helplessly watching a runaway GOP convention that’s been taken over by anti-establishment forces — making their worst nightmares come true on Election Day.