How the Republican Race Could End

Regardless of which scenario prevails, there’s likely to be conflict in Cleveland.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Even before Ted Cruz thrashed Donald Trump in Wisconsin, there was incessant buzz in political circles about the possibility of a contested convention in Cleveland. Since Wisconsin, the buzz has ramped up substantially, consuming hundreds of hours of bloviation on cable news networks. I’ve been gratified to see that, after months of effort by me and others, the term “brokered convention” has largely been dropped. There will be no brokers in Cleveland capable of delivering the nomination.

Now, at last, some of our best analysts are weighing in with plausible scenarios, including Francis Wilkinson and Josh Putnam. Here are my own scenarios for what might happen next:

Trump gets 1,237 delegates by June 8.

The last contests are on June 7, and no one will be able to garner a majority before then. Only Trump has a plausible path to accomplish that goal when the last results roll in. It will be difficult for him, but far from impossible. If the experience in the GOP so far holds—namely that every time Trump stumbles through his own gaffes or bonehead moves, or by a defeat in a state, and a slew of pundits proclaim his candidacy over, his voters stick with him—he might sweep New York and win a succession of victories in the rest of April, getting close enough that he looks like the winner. And that could mean more voters gravitate to him as the biggest prize in California looms. If that happens, expect many of those lawmakers and party nabobs who are trashing him now to find gold amidst the Trump dross and slag, virtues where they now find only vices and thuggery. But a lot of others will be appalled and angered, and try to figure out how to distance themselves from him or at least find a way to preserve majorities in the House and Senate.

Trump falls short of 1,237 in June, but gets to the majority before the convention in July.

There is a strong enough norm that the winner of the popular vote and the leader in delegates should be the nominee that a clear Trump lead after the primaries and caucuses end—say, over 1,100 delegates, to Cruz’s 900 or less—will bring a strong push at the grass roots to accept his victory and avoid the contested convention in Cleveland and the bloody mess that would accompany it. Indeed, 56 percent of Republicans in the Wisconsin exit poll—the state where Trump was thumped—said the leader in delegates should get the nomination. So the hostility of the party establishment aside, it is entirely possible that enough unpledged delegates or delegates pledged to others but released by defunct candidates would go to Trump to validate the norm that the popular leader should prevail. Which won’t reduce the numbers of those appalled and angry.

Trump falls short and Cruz trails—but Cruz wins on the second ballot.

This is a scenario raised by Josh Putnam, a political scientist whose website on delegate selection rules,, is the go-to site for the arcane but important subject. The actual selection of delegates on the Republican side is detached from the primary and caucus results (Democrats, by the way, are different.) And Cruz has been far more clever, organized, and adept than Trump at figuring out how the process works, and getting delegates who will lean toward or be loyal to him. Since delegates are pledged only on the first ballot, and in many states, Trump’s pledged delegates will not be Trump people, it could well be that enough gravitate to Cruz to give him an early victory. And in this case, Cruz would be abetted by the establishment figures like Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush who would rather go down with a genuine conservative than get saddled with Trump’s erratic positions, ignorance about fundamental public policy, and isolationist and protectionist bent. The genuine Trump supporters would no doubt go ballistic—and that could make the convention floor itself a battle zone—but it is a plausible scenario.

Trump and Cruz form an alliance against the chicanery and evil of an establishment bent on choosing someone else.

So imagine that Trump ends up with 1,100 delegates in June, and Cruz follows with 900—meaning the two of them have between them 2,000 of the 2,473 delegates, or 80 percent. And further imagine that in the convention rules committee meeting before Cleveland, party leaders stack the deck and propose a set of rules that allow other candidates to be put in nomination and that make it more difficult for either of the leading candidates to win the nomination, so that they can pave the way for Paul Ryan or John Kasich or another figure more palatable to the congressional, state, and party leaders. Despite the growing poison between the two men, one can imagine them joining forces to stick it to an establishment they both despise, one that would be perfectly happy going to a candidate who did not run in a single primary or bloody himself on any of the battlefields. A Trump/Cruz alliance, including possible a Trump/Cruz ticket, would easily prevail. Sounds crazy, no? What has not been crazy this year?

The establishment has enough muscle and support to choose an outsider who does not have the negatives that are evident for Trump and Cruz.

This scenario, of course, has gotten a lot of buzz, enhanced by the heralded (and “presidential”) speech given recently by Speaker Paul Ryan, the reports that the billionaire baron Charles Koch has signaled his support for Ryan at the convention, a lot of talk by reporters like Mike Allen raising the scenario, and commentators like Karl Rove calling for a “fresh face.” Many in the Rove camp see the desirability of having someone on the presidential ballot, ideally as the Republican nominee, who would at least get the base out to the polls in numbers sufficient to elect Republicans to the House and Senate and keep their majorities. Privately, many Republican office holders who are appalled by Trump and despise Cruz would rather take chaos and worse at the convention triggered by such a move to get a nominee they find palatable. I find this scenario the least likely of the five; manipulating the convention delegates without brokers, and violating all the norms of popular rule to choose nominees (foolish though they may be) to bypass two candidates with 80 percent support among the delegates does not make sense. And the upheaval at the convention would probably make Chicago 1968 look like a picnic.

* * *

Back in August, I wrote about why this time might be different, while most pundits—including the ones who still dominate the cable airwaves—were saying that the GOP would coalesce around a familiar establishment figure. I wrote then, “Somewhere near half the delegates will feel jilted, and Cleveland will rock.” I don’t know which of the five scenarios above will prevail, or if there is one I haven’t thought of or mentioned. I am pretty confident, though, that Cleveland will indeed rock. And roll. And roil.