Ratings Change: Donald Trump will no longer be considered the “presumptive Republican nominee.” His status has been downgraded — at least in this column — to the “highly likely GOP nominee.”
Yes, the phrase, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” has been a political cliche since the days when presidential candidates received delegations of supporters on their front lawns. But even though “Nobody” is the only one still challenging Trump, nothing should be regarded as certain until the bilious billionaire hits the 1,237-vote mark during the roll call at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Only one thing has changed since Ted Cruz and John Kasich returned home to brood about might-have-beens after Trump swept the May 3 Indiana primary. And that is that Donald J. Trump — supposedly the greatest real estate genius since Peter Minuit acquired Manhattan — now looks like a loser.
It’s not just that most recent polls show Trump falling below 40-percent support. (Barry Goldwater hit the post-war Republican low point with 38 percent of the vote in 1964). Or that campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired Monday morning and escorted out of Trump Tower by security.
The moment that cemented Trump’s reputation as a loser came over the weekend when he was repudiated by the National Rifle Association. Consider how wackadoodle a Republican presidential candidate has to sound to be considered toxic by the gun lobby. But after Trump suggested (and, in standard fashion, later denied saying) that revelers at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando should have been armed, NRA officials pointedly noted that guns and drinking are a disastrous combination.
Of course, in this bizarre election year, the polls could dramatically shift by November. But with the Republican convention less than a month away, the delegates are likely to arrive in Cleveland as the stench of looming defeat wafts over Trump’s coiffed comb-over.
Until recent weeks, Republicans could nurture the illusion that Trump could win by assembling a non-traditional coalition of the angry, the aggrieved and the acidic foes of Hillary Clinton. That calculus convinced the timorous that they did not dare risk antagonizing the man who could be the next Republican president, even if Trump is embarrassingly ill-prepared and ill-suited for the Oval Office.
But now the fearful fret that Trump could be buried under a large enough landslide that even GOP control of the House might be in jeopardy. Not only do all Republicans suffer from guilt by association with Trump’s xenophobia and ego-mad commentary, but also such an ungovernable GOP nominee could bequeath the country four years of Hillary Clinton with an electoral mandate to govern.
When a party knows that it’s going to be hanged by the voters in November, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.
There is no precedent for the Cleveland convention no matter how deep you reach into the trick box of historical analogies. Both Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972 trailed badly in the polls, but they each represented an ideological faction with strong support within their respective parties.
Almost all the Democrats in San Francisco at the 1984 convention sensed that Walter Mondale would lose badly to Ronald Reagan, who was questing after a Morning-in-America second term. But Mondale was a popular figure with both the party establishment and ordinary Democrats — and there was a willingness to back the former vice president in his long-shot campaign.
But few Republican officeholders or GOP officials have any personal affection for Trump. And now that the former reality show host looks like the Big Loser as well, it presents the delegates in Cleveland with a series of unpalatable choices.
While Trump has won a majority of the delegates in the primaries and caucuses, many of those bound to vote for him under current rules actually supported other candidates like Cruz. Even if the delegates fail to break their chains, they can still assert themselves in mischievous ways: from rebuking Trump’s positions in the party platform to rebelling against his VP pick.
But the delegates have to ask themselves: Where is the honor in nominating an unqualified buffoon for president when you know that he is going to hurt the party as he goes down to defeat?
Is it really a greater risk for the anti-Trump delegates and party leaders to repudiate the Republican primary voters who fell for the biggest con job in modern political history?
Yes, many Trump voters would feel a sense of betrayal and scream about an establishment conspiracy. But any contested convention — like the one that nominated Dwight Eisenhower over Bob Taft in 1952 — creates lasting enmities.
But somehow overthrowing Trump in Cleveland would also create a dramatic storyline that voters crave. The Republican nominee in these circumstances would head into the fall campaign buoyed by the greatest underdog saga in modern political history. Against a flawed Hillary Clinton, such an out-of-nowhere candidate might have a better chance of victory than Trump.
It won’t happen, of course, since the Republican Party long ago ran out of moxie.
Rather than fighting until the final roll call vote, prominent Republicans prefer to grouse in the corner or to make plans to inherit the wreckage after Trump loses. But history will not be kind to those who acquiesce in a presidential nomination that is politically self-destructive and, more important, morally wrong.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.