When real-estate mogul Donald Trump entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination, I, like most political observers, dismissed him as having no chance of winning.
I knew that his opportunistic populism would resonate with part of the party, especially given how tone-deaf it has been to its own conservative base in the last several presidential cycles, so I did not completely write him off. In fact I hoped that his blunt talk would influence the other candidates to deviate from their scripts and engage in some real, genuine, uninhibited debate about the future of the party and the nation.
Initially, I thought the most-likely Republican nominee was Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) . . . but his campaign imploded surprisingly early. Former technology executive Carly Fiorina (R) seemed like a possibility as well, but her campaign also disintegrated after a brief flare. Then for much of the early phase of the race I thought it would eventually settle on Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) as a reasonable compromise between the conservative base and the old-guard party elites, and although Rubio held out until the final four, he also fizzled.
And then I thought for sure that the party would rally behind Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), an outsider and ‘tea party’ favorite who is not well-liked by the old guard, but who has proven his leadership chops (love him or hate him) and has helped move the Congress in a more un-apologetically conservative direction.
All along, I thought that Trump’s apparent success was an illusion.
First, I said, “People like some of what he’s saying, but when the real voting starts he’ll fizzle out like the outsider firebrands always do. Look at former Governor Howard Dean (D-VT) in 2004!”
Then, “There’s no way that the party’s social conservatives in the southern states will support an irreligious New Yorker with Trump’s center-left social policies.”
Then, “He’s only doing well because his opposition is so badly fractured between so many candidates; look, he’s only pulling thirty or forty percent of primary voters.”
Then, “The party is going to line up behind Rubio,” and then, “behind Cruz.”
More recently, I was sure that Trump’s support wasn’t enough for him to actually win the nomination outright. Even if he had a plurality of the delegates, he would be nowhere near the majority needed to win. “And surely,” I said, “at a contested convention the party will pick Cruz or Rubio or Governor John Kasich (R-OH) or somebody else other than Trump.”
I’ve been doing this political observation thing for a quite a while now, and while my predictions are not always right, I don’t think they have ever been this wrong. All of the rules, all of the normal ways that these things work, all of the internal machinations of the Republican machine, all of it has gone out the window.
The people who make up the political ‘right’ in this country are speaking, and they are saying something that I never thought possible: They want Donald Trump to be President of the United States. And it’s not because he’s the lesser of available evils, or that they just want to shake things up, or that they’re trying a send a message, or that they’re angry, or any of the other easy shorthand explanations offered by the politicos (myself included). Those things all play into it for sure, and they do account for some of his support and some of his success. But it’s becoming more and more clear that a lot of people—many of whom have not been politically active in the past—really, sincerely, truly like him and what he stands for. And they really want him to win. And they really think that he will “make America great again.”
To win the Republican nomination, a candidate needs to amass a majority of the 2,472 delegates to the party’s national convention. The ‘magic number’ is 1,237. As of this writing, Trump has 994; he is only 241 delegates short. Cruz, his closest competition, is far behind with only 566 delegates. Rubio and Kasich each have fewer than 200.
It is increasingly likely that Trump will win the nomination outright and become the presumptive Republican nominee before the convention. Ten states have yet to hold their Republican primaries. California alone, which will vote on June 7, is a winner-take-all state with 172 delegates in-play . . . and Trump is polling more than seventeen points ahead there. Indiana, a winner-take-all state with fifty-seven delegates in play, will vote on May 3 . . . and Trump seems to be holding a narrow lead there as well.
If Trump wins California and Indiana, he will be only fourteen delegates short of the nomination. And even if he loses Indiana, we still have winner-take-all contests in Nebraska (thirty-six delegates), South Dakota (twenty-nine), New Jersey (fifty-one), and Montana (twenty-seven). Four other states have proportional or direct election methods of distributing delegates, which would also allow Trump to make less decisive gains in his delegate count.
In other words, it is difficult to see any path to a contested Republican National Convention at all, and it is impossible that Trump will not at least have the plurality of delegates. And even if Trump falls short of a delegate majority, he would be so close to it that denying him the nomination would result in the party rending itself in two. If that happened, it would all-but guarantee that Trump would be the nominee of one party or the another. And a split Republican Party would practically guarantee a Democratic victory in November.
That is, unless something else crazy happens . . . like a pre-election federal indictment of Democratic front-runner former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), which remains a real possibility. Or a third-party candidacy by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), which is unlikely but not impossible.
As for me, I’m an independent and I have no horse in this race just yet. After the parties have selected their nominees I will begin to more seriously evaluate them and, eventually, endorse the best (or the least-worst) of the available options. So while I can say that I have some serious disagreements with Trump’s proposals as presented thus far, and that I don’t think he was the best of the Republican candidates that were seeking the nomination, I cannot say for sure whether I will vote for him or against him in the end.
And as for Trump’s prospects in the general election . . . normally I would say he stands no chance. But I said the same thing about his chance of winning the Republican nomination, and I have a strong feeling that, pretty soon, I will have to eat my hat. I don’t want to have to eat another in November.