Will the GOP Establishment Betray Republican Voters?

There are three options emerging for what will happen at the convention in Cleveland.

Ted Cruz had a good day Saturday. The Texas senator won the Kansas and Maine caucuses outright, and he beat Donald Trump among election-day voters in the Louisiana primary—though he still lost to Trump once early-voting ballots were tallied, and Trump won the Kentucky caucuses as well. Cruz finished the day having won more delegates than Trump, but equally important for establishing the Texas senator as Trump’s only viable rival was the disastrous performance of Marco Rubio, who placed a distant third in Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas and fell behind John Kasich for fourth place in Maine.

Republican consultants and conservative journalists on Twitter ascribed Trump’s defeats to several implausible causes, most dubious of all being Trump’s decision to skip CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. The notion voters in Kansas or Maine could care the slightest bit about this is a sign of how out-of-touch the center-right commentariat has become. Another of its favorite explanations for Trump’s weakening was the #neverTrump hashtag campaign on Twitter. More credibly, the results of Saturday’s contests might have to do with the smaller, more conservative, more loyally Republican electorate in these four closed primaries and caucuses. Trump’s poor performance in the Fox News debate the previous Thursday, where he was grilled by moderator Megyn Kelly, also hardly helped him in the contests three days later.

But what about Rubio? Have his voters deserted him for Cruz as the candidate most likely to stop Trump? Perhaps in part, but Cruz has been strong in caucuses all along—he did, after all, win the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses. Cruz does well in caucuses because he speaks to the most ideologically committed bloc within the Republican Party, the conservative activists. And they, in turn, are highly effective organizers—though their raw numbers are not so great as to prevail in open primaries. Rubio, by contrast, has been a creature not of the grassroots conservative activist base but of the donor class and intelligentsia in Washington, D.C. The GOP is split not two ways, but three: between populists who mix right-wing and moderate positions, in defiance both of political correctness and conservative orthodoxy; and conservative activists who want a reliable ideologue—Cruz—regardless of his lack of charm; and finally a narrow elite of suburban Republicans, high-dollar donors and conservative verbalists who pride themselves on their own sophistication. Trump is the candidate of the populists, Cruz that of the conservative activists, and Rubio that of an embarrassed elite that wishes to be both right-wing and progressive at the same time.

That elite is proving to be far too slender a base to sustain a presidential campaign, and Rubio’s prospects even for winning his home state of Florida on March 15 are dim. Having vanquished Jeb Bush in the fight to be the Republican elites standard-bearer in this election, Rubio is learning a painful lesson about just what that prize is worth. Even before Saturday’s humiliations, the reality had begun to dawn on Rubio’s supporters that he has no plausible path to the nomination: he would have to win roughly two-thirds of all remaining delegates.

Yet if Trump and Cruz continue to split their winnings as they have been doing since Super Tuesday, neither of them may reach the necessary 1,237 delegates to win the nomination cleanly, either. Should Rubio actually win Florida, or John Kasich his home state of Ohio—or indeed Michigan, where some polls have him surging—Trump’s hopes for the nomination may suffer the death of a thousand cuts. As the race gets tougher for Trump, the window for a contested convention widens.

That might console the #neverTrump elites—until they stop to think about just what might be in store at Cleveland, where Trump and Cruz together will command a majority of delegates. Cruz is personally disliked by much of the party elite, which has come to resent his grandstanding ways in the Senate, while Trump is actively hated and feared. Yet if both of them were to be denied the nomination or some significant consolation prize—and what could that be?—by the party’s D.C. leadership class, there would be hell to pay in the long run.