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Thoughts on a not-so-super Tuesday: why the GOP race is far from over

Everybody is proclaiming Donald Trump the nominee today. God help us all, maybe we're right. Maybe the Know-Nothings have taken over the Republican party, and the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan is dead.

Maybe. But may God help us all if its true.

So if this blog entry contains a bit of whistling in the dark, please excuse it. If what I've just described is the reality, then reality undermines everything decent about America. Hillary Clinton will be our next president. The Supreme Court will be beyond saving. The GOP will lose the Senate. And there will be a moral taint on the Republican brand that will last a generation. The heritage of Lincoln And Teddy and Ike and Reagan will be betrayed. The conservative movement will be in tatters.

I am not ready yet to totally give up hope. I'm not ready to stop fighting.

And there were glimmers of hope in yesterday's race. I'm no fan of Ted Cruz, who would be far, far better suited to the Supreme Court than to the Oval Office. But Cruz did win two big primaries yesterday. One was in his home state of Texas- and the other was in Oklahoma, one of the few states which limit primary voting to registered Republicans.

That's significant. Jonathan Last points out in The Weekly Standard that the Oklahoma result undermines the point that it's not the Republican party that's doing this to itself. This is a hostile takeover from the outside. Even the candidate is an import.

Let's dwell on that point for a moment. The conventional wisdom has been that Trump only has the support of about a third of the GOP rank-and-file, that he has a ceiling of about 35%. But then came Nevada, where he won not quite 46%.

There has subsequently been a number of polls of questionable value putting him north of 40% nationally. But if you combine all the votes cast in Republican primaries yesterday, Trump got around 36%.

Rubio beat Trump in Minnesota and almost beat him in Virginia. But Trump had been up by 14 points in Virginia with less than a week left in the race; he won by eight. Kasich came even closer to beating him in Vermont. There's reason to believe that things will be even dicer for Trump in the future. I don't want to steal all of Mr. Last's surprises, so I'll just say that there were some pretty damaging things about The Donald that the exit polls showed that almost nobody knew yesterday- but that an awful lot of money will be spent telling people in the next few weeks, and by more than one party.

OK, that's all well and good.  But there's no getting around the fact that Trump won an impressive number of primaries yesterday. But wait a minute. The nomination is not decided by the number of primaries and caucuses a candidate wins. It's won by getting a majority of the delegates at the convention.

Out of an expected 280-300 delegates, Trump emerged from Super Tuesday with something like 245.

Rubio, Cruz and Kasich combined are going to wind up with something like 320.

The point here, I think, is not that Rubio or Cruz is going to catch Trump in the remaining primary and caucuses. Neither one will.  The point is that John Kasich- whom everyone, including me, has been calling upon to leave the race because he has no chance- may, in fact, be the only one who has this race figured out.

Kasich has been counting on Trump coming up short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at Cleveland. His strategy is not to catch Trump, but to go into the convention with more delegates than either Rubio or Cruz- and thus to be the logical candidate for them to rally behind in order to take Trump down. Most delegates are professional politicians who realize the disaster they face in November if Trump is nominated. Many are legally bound to Trump only on the first ballot; 80% are free after the second.  And the psychology of such things is that the moment the front-runner weakens- the moment at which he loses votes on any ballot- he's done for. The sharks smell the blood in the water and move in for the kill.

Then whoever is next, or whoever is gaining, gets his turn. The same dynamic applies until somebody manages to get a majority- or close enough to a majority that it would make sense for a relatively small group of delegates or delegations to play kingmaker and switch to the leader, putting him over the top.

If Trump doesn't, at least, come into the convention at least within striking distance of a majority, he's not going to win the nomination. Like horseshoes, close counts in presidential nominating conventions.

But Larry Donovan made a convincing case yesterday over at National Review Online that unless something changes, he won't. There will be a brokered convention. The last one of those the GOP had was the Ford-Reagan contest of 1976. Ford was not assured of the nomination going into the convention, but had won a majority of the primaries and had a plurality the delegates. That and the advantages of incumbency enabled him to pull off a first-ballot victory anyway, with 1,187 votes. 1,130 were needed for the nomination. Coming within 57 votes of a majority was enough; there is, after all, a strong attraction toward being with a winner.

The last before that was the Eisenhower-Taft tussle of 1952. This was before the evolution of the modern primary system; the relatively few primaries were simply non-binding "beauty contests," with the actual decision being made by the party professionals at the convention. Five candidates were placed in nomination; 603 votes were needed for the nomination. On the first ballot, Dwight D. Eisenhower got 595 votes to 500 for Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.

That, too, was enough. Ike was only eight votes short of the nomination, and everybody knew what would happen on the second ballot- the last one any Republican convention would have to this day.

On that ballot, Ike got 845 votes.

Back when people still talked about such things, the rule of thumb was that if a candidate could get within a hundred votes of a majority at a brokered convention, delegate opportunism would give him the rest. But the number, of course, isn't carved in stone. However, seldom has there been so much revulsion against a front runner as there is against Trump. Seldom have party regulars been better motivated to stand their ground. Doubtless Trump's supporters will feel that The Donald is "entitled," despite the rules, because of his domination of the primaries, and will claim that the nomination was somehow stolen.

The fact is, of course, that in order for something to be stolen from somebody, he first has to own it. And until Trump gets 1,237 votes at Cleveland, he has no claim- moral or otherwise- to the nomination. All he will have is a failed attempt to win such a majority, just like everyone else.

The Trump supporters will revolt. It will be too late to get Trump on the ballot as a third-party candidate though the groundwork will probably be laid for such an attempt by Trump in 2020. It's doubtful whether he could pull off a revolt like this twice, especially if things improve in the next four years. But this year, the Trump partisans will probably stay home. But Hillary Clinton will be wounded, too, by her legal problems and by an increasing bitterness among Sanders supporters which may cause them to stay home as well. Whoever emerges from a brokered convention as a compromise nominee might well win.

 In any case, nothing- including a revolt by the Trump people- would damage the party's prospects as much as Trump's nomination. That would certainly cost the party the presidency, any chance to reform the Supreme Court, and the Senate.

Things could change. Ben Carson is reported to be on the verge of dropping out, and some of his support could go to Trump. Rubio and Cruz could both give up. Or one could give up, and the talk of Trump's inevitability might enable him to divided his departed supporters with the remaining one. I see those last two as unlikely.

I believe that Rubio, Cruz and Kasich will all remain in the race right up to the convention.  Forget who wins the primaries; it's the delegates that matter. And if Trump can't come up with at least a thousand delegates and probably 1,100, he's not going to be the nominee.


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