Speaking Of America

Can Donald Trump still be stopped?

The Republican Party has unenviable options if it wants to stop Donald Trump from getting the party's nomination to be the presidential candidate.

WASHINGTON • Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - if one were to map the anti-Trump movement's psychological state to the five stages of grief, one might reasonably suggest it is well into the midway point.

Gone is the suggestion that a wealthy political outsider with a penchant for explosive rhetoric might actually become the flag-bearer for the Republican Party. The very public outpouring of outrage seems to be done too.

After a particularly eventful week last month, when former nominee Mitt Romney came out of the woodwork to hammer Mr Trump and party candidates turned in one of the ugliest, most juvenile debate performances in recent history, everyone seems to have backed off from the Trump attacks.

Right now, the focus is single-mindedly fixed on how to stop Mr Trump from running away with the Republican Party nomination.

Nothing so far has worked and the movement now is left with just three options - ranging from the implausible to the desperate.

One option is to have second-placed Texas Senator Ted Cruz overhaul Mr Trump's lead and secure the nomination by winning the required number of delegates at the ballot box. Another is to wrest the nomination from Mr Trump at the nominating convention in July. If both fail, there is the fantastical notion of fielding a third-party candidate.


At the heart of the movement to stop a man so many party members have voted for is the belief that Mr Trump's nomination would have disastrous long-term consequences for the Republican Party.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

At the heart of the movement to stop a man so many party members have voted for is the belief that Mr Trump's nomination would have disastrous long-term consequences for the Republican Party.

The thinking is not just that Mr Trump would be a public relations disaster for the party or that he would lose to the presumptive Democratic nominee, but also that he is objectionable to so many Republicans that most would simply sit out the election in November. Many disagree with Mr Trump's own view that he is actually expanding the Republican base.

And if Republicans do not head out to vote for the president, they will not be there to vote for governors, congressmen and senators either. The apocalyptic scenario for Republicans is that a Trump nomination would cost them control of Congress and many state governments. And given that future candidates are picked from the political leaders of today, this year notwithstanding, it could hamper efforts to win the White House for years to come.

But how feasible are the efforts to stop Mr Trump? In a political season where nothing has gone to plan, can these plans really work?

PLAN A: CRUZ-ING TO VICTORY

While by no means a desirable outcome for many in the Republican establishment - Mr Cruz is so disliked in the US Capitol that he finished behind Mr Trump in the Washington primary - having the Texas senator win enough delegates to secure the nomination outright has got to be Plan A.

A victory by Mr Cruz achieved at the ballot box would quell talk of the party leadership subverting the will of the voters and would not require extraordinary measures to be taken at the nominating convention. It would, however, require extraordinary success at every primary election from now on - a feat he looks unlikely to be able to accomplish.

To secure the nomination, Mr Cruz needs 82 per cent of all remaining delegates, a scenario that requires not just a clean sweep of all remaining contests, but also with victories at unprecedented margins.

A more feasible target would be to simply overhaul Mr Trump's current delegate lead.

This would not require the same outlandish margins of victory, but would still require a monumental collapse from Mr Trump. The presence of Mr John Kasich also makes such an outcome unlikely, given that establishment votes are now split between the Ohio governor and Mr Cruz.

If this were a football match, one might say Mr Cruz is down 0-5 to Mr Trump at half-time, and he is playing with 10 men.

PLAN B: A CONTESTED CONVENTION

Of the three options, a contested convention has been the one most often discussed, largely because it looks like the most likely of the three scenarios. While it is nearly impossible for Mr Cruz to hit the magic delegate number and secure the nomination, it is not easy for Mr Trump either.

The billionaire needs over around 53 per cent of the remaining delegates to wrap up the nomination and his current performance - winning between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of votes - leaves him falling short.

In a scenario where no one goes to the July convention in Cleveland with the majority of delegates then, the Republican Party establishment regains control of the nominating process.

The delegates who were previously bound to vote for a particular candidate can subsequently vote for whoever they want if no one has enough votes to win.

The identity of the delegates suddenly becomes important, especially for someone hated by the party leadership. Most of the delegates are chosen at state conventions and consist of activists, volunteers and elected officials - in other words, the sort of old-school Republican who is unlikely to be a Trump supporter.

If it gets to this stage, then the big question is who the party will actually pick and how Mr Trump's supporters will react to having their candidate usurped through party machinations.

It may be that the party delegates end up choosing a white knight who has not been in the race to mitigate the sense of injustice - at least then they will not have to try to justify elevating a candidate who has already been beaten by Mr Trump - but there will be an inevitable party split. Mr Trump himself has warned of possible violence and riots if he is deprived of the nomination this way.

PLAN C: THE 'NUCLEAR OPTION'

Still, a party split at a contested convention would pale in comparison to the sort of civil war that would take place if the Republican Party leadership essentially abandons its own organisation to field a third-party candidate.

If all other attempts fail to deprive Mr Trump of the party nomination, the suggestion from some in the anti-Trump movement is that they try to deprive him of the party. The Republican leadership sets up a new party, picks a new leader and rallies the party base to support this new entity.

Doing this will require an extraordinary logistical effort with little promise of success. For this plan to work perfectly, a number of fantastical assumptions have to be made.

First, the leadership assumes there is a sufficiently large revolt within the Republican voter base against Mr Trump nationwide that enables this new candidate to even qualify for the general election. To get his name on the ballot, hundreds of thousands of signatures will be required in each state. In Florida, for instance, third-party candidates need to be backed by a petition with nearly 120,000 valid signatures. Even then, the candidate would not be able to stand in the election in all states as some of their registration deadlines have passed. (Another option would be to take over a minor party that has already done the registration, but it is hard to imagine any of the minor parties agreeing to this.)

Second, this third-party candidate needs to outperform every third-party candidate in history by a tremendous margin. The aim, at this stage, is not to win the White House outright but to deny all other candidates a victory - essentially a replay of the contested convention strategy at the general election level.

If no single candidate at the general election wins enough states to secure the White House, the decision goes to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The amount of money, organisation and voter education required in a compressed amount of time to make this plan viable is so high as to be almost unimaginable. That is without even considering the dismantling of a longstanding political party.

In all likelihood, unless Mr Cruz pulls off some kind of magic, those in the anti-Trump movement are left with the option of letting Mr Trump lead the party and seeing if he destroys it, or destroying it themselves in the hope of building it up again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'Can Donald Trump still be stopped?'. Print Edition | Subscribe