Asked on Friday whether he is considering using a contested convention to win the Republican nomination, Marco Rubio said that he isn’t—and then left no doubt that he is.
“No,” the Florida senator said when asked whether he was “thinking” about the strategy during an interview with CBS News. “But the truth is that it is possible that no one gains the 1,236 delegates that are necessary to win. If you look at the way it’s going now, no one may have that number of delegates—and that, in and of itself, would trigger a convention in which, after the first round, delegates are free to vote for whomever they want. I would not prefer that to be the case. I would much rather just have someone win the nomination and end this process—but not a con artist like Donald Trump.”
Rubio’s correct: It is possible that no Republican wins a majority of the delegates, and if no candidate has the votes to win during the first round at this summer’s convention, the delegates really would be free to vote for whomever they want in the second—be it Rubio, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, or anyone else their conservative hearts desire. (Also: Donald Trump really is a con artist.) As my colleague Jim Newell explained when the contested convention speculation first bubbled up back in December—ahead of its quadrennial schedule—a contested convention, while still incredibly unlikely, is at least slightly more plausible than it normally would be given how much the Republican Party dreads seeing Trump on stage when the red, white, and blue balloons come down in Ohio this summer. A contested convention would be a messy affair that could last days, but a Trump nomination would be a messier affair that would last far longer.
Still, it’s remarkable that Rubio is willing to talk so openly about what is the narrowest path to a presidential nomination one could draw up. A contested nomination is not how a major candidate dreams of becoming their party’s standard-bearer; it’s how the twice-departed Rick Perry does.
For Rubio and the Republican establishment (sans Chris Christie!) that has finally decided to rally around him, a contested convention may be the only hope of stopping Trump. Gaming out the delegate race this early in the year is difficult—particularly since so many states award delegates based on some rather hard-to-follow formulas—but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and NBC’s Meet the Press team gave it their best shots recently. Both came to similar conclusions. “[T]he cake is very, very close to being baked for Trump on the delegate math,” Cillizza wrote before the Donald’s runaway win in Nevada this week. “Something cataclysmic is going to have to happen—and soon.” NBC News came to a similar conclusion on Friday after doing its own back-of-the-envelope math: There are “[o]nly two possible delegate outcomes: 1) Trump as nominee or 2) a contested convention.”
I agree that Trump now looks like a juggernaut, but he needs to keep it up for a few more weeks before he can be considered the presumptive nominee. Despite dominating the opening rounds of 2016, Trump only has about 7 percent of the delegates he’d need to secure the nomination. While the billionaire will add to his total next week—when roughly half of the needed delegates are up for grabs—none of the Super Tuesday contests are winner-take-all affairs, meaning if the contests play out like the previous ones have, Rubio and Ted Cruz should win enough delegates to stay within sight of Trump. It could be a different story two weeks later, though, when the winner-take-all contests begin in places like Ohio and Florida, where Trump doesn’t only lead, he’s running ahead of his national average.
Rubio maintains that he’ll still win his home state, despite the fact that Trump has led every major public poll in Florida taken since the start of November, save for one outlier that showed him down a scant two points to … Cruz. (The RealClearPolitics average has Trump up 13 points on Cruz and 17 points on Rubio.) If Rubio can’t win at home, he’ll have little chance of forcing the floor fight he’ll need this summer to win the nomination, both because Trump would be on his way to an insurmountable delegate lead and because even the most die-hard Rubio fans would start to give up hope.
Still, it’s in his best interest to keep that pipe dream alive for now, since every Trump-hating Republican who still believes a miracle is possible is one more Republican who will consider cutting a check to pay for it. That’s no doubt why one of Rubio’s top advisers has, according to CNN, been showing major donors a PowerPoint presentation that reveals a contested convention as one of Rubio’s two paths to the nomination. The other path, as you’d imagine, involves the GOP’s appointed savior actually winning outside his own backyard.