The Republican Party's Best Bet Against Trump

GOP leaders had planned to unite behind an alternative to the front-runner, but after Super Tuesday, they now favor a strategy of fragmentation.

Andrew Harnik / AP

More by necessity than design, some of the leading Republicans opposed to Donald Trump are completely reversing their thinking about how he might be stopped after his sweeping wins on Super Tuesday.

After Trump’s victories in seven of 11 states this week, some of his key Republican critics are moving from a long-shot bet on beating him through consolidation to an even riskier wager on denying him the nomination through fragmentation.

Before Tuesday, Republican leaders had almost universally bet on consolidation: clearing the field to unite behind one alternative to the front-runner. But after Trump captured states across the GOP’s geographic and demographic spectrum, those resisting him are now talking about a strategy of fragmentation: encouraging Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, Trump’s principal remaining rivals, to informally divide the country and simultaneously challenge him on different battlefields.

The goal is to splinter the vote enough to prevent Trump from acquiring the 1,237 delegates he needs for a first ballot nomination at the GOP convention in Cleveland.  “I don’t think consolidation is the path forward; I think that was a December option,” says Stuart Stevens, the senior strategist for Mitt Romney in 2012 and a leading Trump critic. “I think people other than Donald Trump winning delegates is the answer, and that is better achieved not through consolidation.”

Katie Packer Gage, the executive director of Our Principles PAC, the leading conservative group targeting Trump, has now also concluded that fragmentation offers a better chance of stopping him than consolidation, if only because the latter is so unlikely. “Whatever [is] the best option might be irrelevant,” she says. “That might be the only option. There probably does have to be a multi-pronged effort to deny him the nomination.”

It would be tempting to call this a strategy of divide and conquer-except that would understate the position of weakness from which this discussion springs. “I would call it divide and survive,” Stevens says. “No one is going to be conquering.”

Among Republicans nervous about Trump, the talk of consolidation hasn’t stopped. But nothing about Tuesday’s results encouraged it. Instead it underscored the limits confronting each of the candidates chasing Trump, even as it demonstrated both the front-runner’s strengths and continuing challenges.

In most respects, Trump’s performance this week was dominant. Trump crossed the geographic and religious divide that stymied the past two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, by winning northern and border states with relatively fewer evangelicals that they carried (Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia) but also taking the heavily evangelical Southern states they lost (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee). And Trump continued to demonstrate enormous appeal for the party’s turbulent blue-collar wing, carrying at least 46 percent of non-college whites in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Massachusetts.

But in other ways, Trump’s performance hinted at lingering resistance. He exceeded 40 percent of the vote in just two states—Alabama and Massachusetts. In every state, his showing among whites with a four-year college degree or more lagged behind his support from whites without degrees; he’s carried most college-educated whites in only six of the 13 states with exit polls. And of course, his wins came even as concern over him among party leaders peaked following his refusal to instantly denounce the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist David Duke on CNN last weekend. “You talk to people on Capitol Hill and they are terrified,” the veteran Republican strategist Pete Wehner said.

The problem remains, though, that none of Trump’s rivals appear big enough to stop him alone. Cruz and Rubio continue to demonstrate mirror-image weaknesses. Cruz’s coalition is too narrow, while Rubio’s remains too shallow. Even as Trump has cracked Cruz’s evangelical foundation in several states, the Texan has not topped 18 percent support among voters who are not evangelicals anywhere except his home state. Rubio, meanwhile, has drawn support that is broad but thin. On Tuesday, Rubio won white college graduates in just three states and non-college whites in none. And by tilting right in his message, Rubio has left room for Kasich—whose support is narrowly restricted to party centrists—to peel away moderates outside the South.

Looking at that record, it’s no wonder more Trump critics are losing faith that one candidate can unite the party against him—and instead hoping that the field can collectively contest Trump in enough states to prevent him from obtaining a first ballot nomination. The most obvious risk in this approach is that the pack will divide the voters most skeptical of Trump. But, argues Stevens, “There is no other path. Ask yourself: If Rubio gets out is Kasich going to win Florida? If Kasich gets out, is Rubio going to win Ohio?” Even some senior advisers to the remaining contenders are privately echoing that logic.

This last ditch strategy implicitly acknowledges that Trump is likely to arrive in Cleveland with the largest delegate haul—but bets that the convention will reject him anyway if he falls below an absolute majority. Ordinarily that would be a recipe for civil war. But Trump’s critics justifiably think civil war is equally likely if he’s nominated. “There is a huge split in the party whether he wins or there is a brokered convention,” said Gage. “Neither,” she added a moment later, “bodes well for winning the general election.”