With the Republican presidential primaries increasingly coming down to the wire, the efforts being organized by some Republicans to stop Donald Trump from becoming the nominee have zeroed in on one strategy: stopping him from winning the nomination at the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. In order to formally clinch the nomination before the convention, Trump needs to amass an absolute majority of the total delegates (that is, 1,237 of the 2,472). If he does not, then the convention delegates themselves would decide who the nominee is, and they could nominate anyone — even a person who has not run in a single primary.
In practice, this is still unlikely, of course. There hasn’t been a contested (or “brokered”) convention in either party since the modern era of presidential primaries began, though both parties have come close on occasion. This year, though, it seems more reasonable to consider than in years past for one simple reason: Donald Trump is the weakest frontrunner for the nomination in recent memory. This isn’t a matter just of personal opinion, but one of math. Trump has yet to achieve a majority (rather than a plurality) of the vote in any primary or caucus; in 2012, Romney had done so in five states by this point in the race. In order to win the nomination, Trump will likely have to win a majority of delegates, or come very close to it.
In recent days, Trump himself has seemed to recognize this, and has begun planning for a contested convention. He’s also predicted (or threatened, depending on how one interprets his comments) that there may riots if he comes up just short in the delegate count and is thus denied the nomination. All of this would seem to indicate that Trump (and perhaps many of his supporters) would view a contested convention that gave someone else the nomination as illegitimate. That sort of irresponsible talk has been rightly condemned by other leading Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Of course, that is nonsense. Contested conventions have a long history in presidential politics. They’re an established part of the rules that all the candidates accepted by agreeing to run for their party’s nomination. The bottom line is that Donald Trump knows his posturing is just bluster: If the convention chooses someone else as the nominee, there won’t be much he can do about it. At that point, it would be far too late for him — or anyone else — to mount an independent run.
What is true is that anyone who emerged as the nominee from a contested convention would have to unite the party quickly in order to have any hope of defeating Hillary Clinton. The presidential nominating contest shows that the Republican Party is badly fractured, and plenty of healing will be needed. However, this would be equally true if Trump won the nomination, and may be just as challenging for him as anyone else. Neither Trump’s supporters nor those who oppose him are likely to rally around this year’s eventual nominee as readily as they have following contentious primary contests in previous election years.
Right now, the GOP is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They can either hope that Donald Trump can unite the party and pivot enough to become a plausible candidate in the general election, or they could choose someone else at the floor of the convention and hope that person can somehow bring the party together. Either is a risky, high-stakes strategy that could not only cost Republicans the White House, but control of Congress, making what has already been a tough year for the GOP even worse.