Skip to main content

Intelligencer - February 27, 2020

In January 2016, Donald Trump was unusually unpopular among Republican voters for a Republican presidential candidate. The mogul’s net approval among his adopted party’s faithful was 19 points lower than Marco Rubio’s, 20 points lower than Ben Carson’s, and 24 points lower than Ted Cruz’s. Polls also indicated that the mogul was by far the least electable GOP candidate in the primary race: Gallup put Trump’s net favorability among independent voters at -27, more than two times lower than the next most unpopular Republican.

As Trump wracked up early primary victories, Establishment Republicans issued increasingly frantic warnings about the insurgent’s ideological treachery and electoral inviability. In early March, the previous GOP standard-bearer gave a speech decrying Trump’s ruinous economic policies, misogyny, and inability to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s primary rivals condemned him as a conman, and even tried to form an alliance explicitly aimed at keeping his delegate totals down. Meanwhile, mainstream pundits incessantly echoed the conventional wisdom that a Trump nomination would all but cede the White House to Hillary Clinton.

For a while there, all this appeared to put a ceiling on Trump’s support. At the beginning of April, the Republican front-runner had yet to win a majority of delegates in any state. On the fifth of that month, Ted Cruz beat Trump in Wisconsin by a 48 to 35 percent margin.

But then things changed. Cruz’s victory in the Badger State made the threat of a contested convention plausible and concrete to GOP voters. Trump began emphasizing the argument that winning a plurality of delegates (as opposed to a majority) should be sufficient for him to secure the nomination — and that any other outcome would be “crooked” or “rigged.” Suddenly, Trump’s support in both polls and primaries shot up to unprecedented heights. Neither Rubio’s withdrawal from the race nor some regional change in the primary calendar could fully explain this shift. As Nate Silver wrote at the time:

What happened after Wisconsin? My theory as of a couple weeks ago — and having not gotten so many other things about the Republican race right, I’m sticking to it — is that Republican voters were swayed by Trump’s arguments that the candidate with the most votes and delegates should be the nominee. (Meanwhile, voters regarded Cruz’s wins over Trump at state party conventions as undemocratic.) Some voters might have preferred Cruz or John Kasich to Trump in the abstract, but not at the expense of a contested convention in which the plurality winner would be denied the nomination and replaced with another flawed candidate.

Which is to say: Once the threat of a contested convention became tangible, Trump-skeptical Republicans opted to unify behind a nominee they didn’t love — and whom they’d been given every reason to consider unelectable and unacceptable by party elites and Establishment media — out of an ostensible aversion to prolonging intraparty discord and embracing an anti-democratic process.

Democratic elites would be wise to mind this recent history.

Or, more precisely, the segment of such elites who disdain Bernie Sanders would have been wise to remember to do so before telling the paper of record that they’re preparing to block the socialist senator’s nomination by any means necessary.

As the New YorkTimes reports:

Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times has interviewed 93 party officials — all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention — and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority

Jay Jacobs, the New York State Democratic Party chairman and a superdelegate, echoing many others interviewed, said that superdelegates should choose a nominee they believed had the best chance of defeating Mr. Trump if no candidate wins a majority of delegates during the primaries.

There are obviously important differences between the voting behavior of each party’s base (Democratic voters have historically been less ideological and antagonistic to their party’s leadership than GOP ones). But there’s little reason to believe that Democratic voters wouldn’t emulate their Republican counterparts, were they presented with a choice between rallying behind their party’s insurgent front-runner, or accepting the inevitability of a contested convention. ...
Read full commentary at Intelligencer