And if it is, then what?
It is something of an irony that after months of saying outrageous things and winning more and more support off the back of it, Trump’s downfall might well be due to a sensible answer. There is, after all, nothing unusual or wrong in the principle that people who break the law should be punished. If it doesnâ€™t feel right to apply the punishment, chances are the law shouldnâ€™t be there in the first place. But thatâ€™s all by the by; the point is that this last week, if the wheels didnâ€™t quite come off Trumpâ€™s campaign, they certainly had a screw loose.
Adding to that, his nomination prospects took a bad knock in Wisconsin, where he landed just six delegates to Cruzâ€™s 36, meaning that the target of 1237 looks to be slipping back beyond the horizon. Unless Trump can find renewed momentum, we are now heading for a contested convention; one which has thrown up a whole series of horrible questions for the delegates.
In a nutshell, the problem is this: On the one hand, Trump has a far better mandate than any other candidate. Heâ€™s won twice as many states as Cruz and has a comfortable lead in both delegates and votes cast. Any normal candidate in that position would be declared the moral victor and proceed straight to the nomination. But on the other hand, Trump isnâ€™t a normal candidate. He is the embodiment of Mr Marmite. Heâ€™s simultaneously led the Republican race for ten months while also recording truly dire favourability ratings (currently a net score of about -35, against -15 for Clinton, -22 for Cruz and +7 for Kasich). These feed directly into the head-to-heads against Clinton: Trump trails her by about 8%, against a deficit of about 4% for Cruz and a lead of 5Â½% for Kasich.
The figures are so bad and Trumpâ€™s propensity to do something monumentally stupid is sufficiently high that thereâ€™s a lot more than the White House at stake. If nominated, his unpopularity could run through the down-ticket Republicans like a stomach bug on a badly-plumbed cruise ship.
Which is why thereâ€™s so much speculation about the convention by-passing Trump if he fails to reach 1237. Not just speculation either: despite his formidable lead, Trump is only just odds-on for the nomination â€“ or put another way, the markets feel that the chances of someone else being nominated are well in excess of 40%.
That feels to me to be too high. For all Trumpâ€™s negatives, the other horn of the dilemma is that the set of alternatives to his rejection is just as bad.
But before we get there, a quick reaffirmation of why the odds on a non-Trump candidate have come in so far. Apart from Trumpâ€™s unpopularity in the country and in the party, his options if he leaves Cleveland with nothing but a bloody nose arenâ€™t good. He cannot do a Teddy Roosevelt and run as a Bull Moose-type third-party candidate. Quite simply, the logistics donâ€™t work. The deadlines for independent candidates will have passed in many states, while others have sore-loser laws that prevent a candidate in a primary running under any other description in the general. A bitter Trump might be able to run-to-spoil but he couldnâ€™t run-to-win.
What he and his supporters could do is make a lot of noise from the sidelines and try to sabotage Lyinâ€™ Ted (perhaps by then, Stealinâ€™ Ted too), in some other way. There, Cruzâ€™s opponents have two trump cards to play: his eligibility and the sex scandal. Both stories have gone quiet recently but thereâ€™s enough for an embittered and reckless character to play with on both to create merry mayhem.
And even if Trump wasnâ€™t firing broadsides at Cruz in September and October, the fact remains that the Texas senator is unpopular himself and trails Clinton. Why replace one loser with another?
However, here weâ€™re asking what the Republicans should do rather than what they will do â€“ which is a rather different question and one which turns on what they think they should do. The question is as much psychology as psephology. Also, as Pulpstar noted, Cruzâ€™s Tea Party activists have been rather more adept at being nominated as delegates than Trumpâ€™s enthusiastic amateurs. Consequently, whether or not itâ€™d be in his partyâ€™s best interests to nominate him, Cruz would be in a very strong position to work the convention once delegates become unbound.
Cruz also has the advantage that heâ€™s the only candidate besides Trump who delegations can vote for on the first ballot, assuming that Rule 40b remains as currently written i.e. all candidates need the support of at least eight states to permit their nomination to the convention. If Cruz can sneak in supporters who are initially pledged elsewhere, that will give him considerable leverage once delegates start becoming unbound.
As an aside, we might ask why candidates donâ€™t pay more attention to getting their supporters nominated. The simple answer is that in any political system, competitors for office will focus on where the levers of power lie. Since primaries became near-universal, killing off contested conventions, it didnâ€™t matter who delegates actually preferred as long as they were mandated to do as the electorate told them and as long as they electorate came to a clear decision. The primaries, not the convention, held the levers of power: win the primaries and the rest took care of itself. Unless no-one wins the primaries.
But if Trump is unelectable and has gone out of his way to alienate his party, and if Cruz is also too risky and too unpopular a candidate, what then? The obvious answer is John Kasich. Sure, heâ€™s only won one state (his own) and has a measly number of delegates but he did at least run and has decent favourability ratings. There are at least credible reasons the party could put to the electorate to reject Trump and Cruz â€“ how would they justify adding Kasich to that list too?
When it comes down to it, the other options look so bad that the sensible thing would just be to accept the moral mandate, back Trump and then try to put as much distance between him and the party as possible. As such, I still think his odds are too long and offer value. All the same, the Republicans have been remarkably adept of late at doing anything other than the sensible thing. Makes for absorbing viewing at least.