Though it wasn’t a complete knockout blow, Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday was dominant enough to make the Republican Party poobahs, and his three remaining rivals (so long, Ben Carson), consider whether their Plan B should instead be their Plan Only: a contested convention to deny Trump the nomination this summer.
This “split the delegates” strategy would mark a complete reversal from the one the GOP establishment has been advocating for the better part of a year—to consolidate behind an establishment-minded candidate. As my colleague Jim Newell has explained, the new plan is no more likely to succeed than the old one was, given Trump’s polling leads in Florida and Ohio, which hold winner-take-all contests in two weeks’ time. But what’s at least as misguided coming from those conservatives trying to justify doing any and everything they can to derail the GOP front-runner is the notion that a Trump nomination would tear their party apart. Too late: It’s already happened.
You don’t have to go searching far and wide for signs that the GOP establishment—an admittedly amorphous catchall that includes elected officials, donors, and conservative journalists—has already fractured under the weight of Trump’s candidacy, with significant chunks now under his sway. The pugnacious billionaire has been endorsed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and a half dozen current and former GOP congressmen—every one of them card-carrying members of the Republican Party. That’s nowhere near as many GOP figures on Team Rubio, but it is a total that will continue to grow before the race reaches the convention floor in Cleveland. Add in his combative but symbiotic relationship with Fox News, and it becomes difficult to see Trump as the party outcast that the anybody-but-Trump wing of the party makes him out to be. (And, lest you forget, all three of the men running against him are on the record vowing to support the eventual nominee.)
Then, of course there is the swath of actual Republican voters who have now cast primary ballots for him. He’s won 10 states across the South, West, and New England, and finished runner-up in the only other five contests of the year. Combined, he’s won more than a third of the vote—not a mandate-creating majority, but a serious chunk and significantly more than any of his rivals have garnered.
Trump’s conservative critics can try to dismiss those numbers as skewed because many of the states that have voted have open primaries that allow Democrats or independents to partake in them. But entrance and exit polls from those states make clear that while Trump is attracting non-Republican votes, he’s been more successful among Republican voters than he has among voters who just so happen to vote Republican. He has faired as well or better with self-identified Republicans than he has with those who described themselves as independents in 11 of 13 contests for which CBS News has released entrance and exit polls. (The missing two: Alaska and Minnesota.) In Alabama, where he won handily, Trump garnered 46 percent of those voters who described themselves as Republican compared with 38 percent of those who did not. Even in Texas, where he lost, he received 29 percent of those who identified as Republicans compared with 24 percent of those who did not. I could go on. And in the two outliers—South Carolina and Arkansas—his support among non-Republicans was within two percentage points of his Republican total. Cruz and Rubio had similar splits in those surveys, but Kasich has fared better with primary voters who don’t consider themselves Republican in every state but Massachusetts.
Such polls aren’t perfect, but taken together with everything else they make it difficult to consider Trump’s base separate from the Republican Party’s. GOP powerbrokers may well try to deny the Donald in a messy floor fight this summer, but it wouldn’t be by repelling an insurgency. It would be by denying their own.