Reality bites the GOP

Enough with the denial. Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, and there is no chance for a real conservative to run a viable independent campaign against him.

There is no more denying that Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In politics, reality often arrives long before we can accurately perceive it. That seems particularly true in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in the Republican presidential primaries, cemented by the withdrawal of every other challenger in the field earlier this month. Predictions of contested conventions and conservative-wing delegate strategies have all been rendered moot. Trump may not have won a majority of the vote in Republican primaries, but by the time he takes the stage in Cleveland he will have won a majority of the delegates.

Some in the GOP still struggle with the result, however, and have not come to terms with reality — at least, not yet. Scenarios of contested conventions have not been totally discarded, but instead spun into fantasies of delegate revolts that are based on fundamental misunderstandings of what the primaries tell us about the Republican Party in 2016. And it is not just the conservative opposition that labors under those misperceptions, although they are the ones acting on them at the moment.

For a few weeks, as it became clear that Ted Cruz and John Kasich would not impede Trump from getting to a majority of delegates, some conservatives — including friends of mine — tried looking for someone to run as an independent candidate in November. This is largely motived by a principled objection to Trump and conservatives' refusal to vote for him, which is understandable. But they also frame these efforts as realistic projects for others to support, which simply isn't supportable.

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The nadir of the disconnect came when John Kasich told CNN on Monday that he'd been approached to run as an independent against Trump and Hillary Clinton, but declared that such a campaign would not be "constructive." And indeed, such a bid would be impossible. All but a handful of states have laws preventing candidates who campaigned for major-party primaries and caucuses to later run as independents, called "sore loser laws." Even if that didn't make it impossible, the lack of an organization to meet ballot deadlines that are fast approaching would doom a Kasich bid.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post's Robert Costa and Philip Rucker reported that the conservative opposition reached out to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, too. That would have replaced a billionaire reality-TV star with quirky and heterodox political views with… another billionaire reality-TV star with quirky and heterodox political views.

The basis for all of these efforts is a lack of acceptance of one very big truth: Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by winning over Republicans. A study by Politico of the GOP's primary results intended to debunk another questionable assumption by Trump and his supporters, which is that Trump won by expanding the party. While the GOP got a record turnout in the 2016 contests, those voters turned out to mostly be reliable Republican general-election voters who usually do not engage in primaries.

That analysis has some corroboration in other measures. There has been a lack of significant registration gains over the last few months, which one would expect if the Trump candidacy had expanded the party rather than just turned out more of its base. State-level head-to-head polling shows no evidence that Trump outperforms Romney in any of the critical swing states needed for Republicans to win the White House. There is no expansion of Republican appeal from four years ago. Latching onto the party-expansion hypothesis without evidence could lead to disastrous decisions on general-election strategy, and may already have.

However, the Politico analysis should strip some illusions from conservatives as well. Trump didn't "hijack" the Republican Party, nor did open primaries and caucuses prevent conservatives from beating Trump. Trump won a number of closed-primary states, including the critical Florida primary, and in such diverse states as Kentucky, Louisiana, Arizona, and the five northeastern "Acela Corridor" states in which Trump won landslides. Trump dominated Republicans and independents in these states. Trump became the frontrunner and remained on top with both constituencies by venting their anger over Republican impotence on immigration, and by taking a hard-line position that has its best support within the party, not outside of it.

That isn't an endorsement of the results; it's merely a recognition of reality. Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee in November, for better or worse. He will be one of two rational and viable choices for voters, with Hillary Clinton all but certain to be the other option. While other candidates can get on the ballot (and will), they have no chance of winning the election. Experience and history, as well as the calendar and ballot access laws, make this reality clear.

Acknowledging reality does not require one to vote for Trump in November. No politician is "owed" a vote by anyone, within or outside of a party; a candidate has to earn that vote. But for those who want to start moving the Republican Party back to conservative principles, refusing to acknowledge that reality will only delay success. Tearing the party apart with an ill-conceived and nonsensical independent bid might doom it forever, leaving the party with Trump and his supporters for a generation — and conservatives with nothing to influence.

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