Mitt Romney’s speech yesterday was first-rate. It hit almost every important point in attempting to explain why Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency. I wish he had devoted more time to explaining why Trump knows and cares nothing about American constitutionalism – which is an increasingly important topic in the presidential race, in light of Justice Scalia’s passing. But it was a terrific speech. Donald Trump’s response – to insult Romney personally, but not to challenge the substance of Romney’s attack – was not only predictable, it was predicted by Mitt Romney. So thanks, Mr. Trump, for proving everyone’s point about you. Again.
Some in the media have been focusing on whether the Romney speech will matter. It will not, if the only measurement of “matter” is changing the minds of Trump supporters. We know that many, many Trump voters are generally incapable of being persuaded, regardless of the evidence presented to them of Trump’s unfitness. (That is not a compliment, nor is it a desirable characteristic among people in a democracy)
But that, it seems to me, was never the point. The Romney speech, and the movement among many high-profile people in the Republican Party toward the “Never Trump” position, is not designed to persuade Trump voters to defect. Again, they will never entertain doubts about him.
Rather, first, Never Trump is an expression of conscience. It is a way of declaring – for the public record, in case, years from now, anyone is ever accused of having supported Donald Trump – a candidate’s firm position of political morality: no Trump, ever.
For an (imperfect) comparison, imagine how many prominent Democrats, particularly those who strongly supported civil rights, would have felt in 1964 – or even 1968 – if George Wallace had emerged as the Party’s likely nominee (Wallace was a Democrat, though he ran as an Independent in 1968, and won several states in the general election; in 1972, Wallace had renounced segregation and waged a successful Democratic primary campaign but was paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet in May – he actually won the Maryland and Michigan primaries the following day). Had Wallace ever gotten that far in the 1960s in a Democratic Primary, isn’t it likely that many Democrats would have done everything in their power to speak out against a Wallace nomination and presidency, if for no other reason than as a matter of conscience? They actually did in 1964. In fact, for those looking for an example of a movement to denounce a presidential candidate from within his Party, 1964 is useful, and provides a window (again, though, an imperfect comparison) into what is happening today with Republicans (Wallace, of course, was not a front-runner then like Trump is now, but he was second to LBJ, and though Trump is not Wallace, the comparisons remain striking). My point is this: it is not beyond imagination that a candidate could be so offensive and unacceptable to some in the party that a movement could emerge to stop that candidate’s ascendancy.
Second, this movement is not directed at the Trump supporters but, rather, at all of the others (roughly, I would estimate, about 65% of the Party that has already expressed the view that they prefer someone other than Trump). The idea, as I understand it, is to make certain that even if Trump continues to win primaries and delegates, he does not amass enough delegates to win the Republican nomination (1,237). If the existing non-Trump supporters decide to defect toward Trump, then Trump almost certainly will win the nomination. Therefore, if the delegates in proportional states can be split, and if voters can coalesce around any other candidate in a winner-take-all state, Trump cannot get to 1,237 and cannot claim the nomination, even if he has the most delegates overall. Consequently, those Republicans who support other candidates should, the argument goes, continue to support other candidates but never Trump. Mark Murray has this explanation of the delegate math at NBC News.
This brings me to another important point. Chris Matthews, for example, has been critical of a process that would deny the nomination to the person with the most delegates. But there is no law, policy, or even tradition of awarding the nomination to the candidate with the most delegates but without a majority. The candidate must have a majority of delegates to claim the nomination, not simply have more than the other guys. If Trump comes to the convention with anything less than 1,237 – even if it is 1,236 – he has no claim to the nomination. He may have a claim to more delegates, but he has no legitimate expectation of being the nominee. This process, by the way, is not unique to the Republicans; the Democrats have a similar process.
There is an analogue to all of this – the Constitution’s process for selecting the President. To win the presidency, a candidate must have at least 270 electoral votes. Anyone who does not cannot become president unless that determination is made by the House of Representatives. So if a candidate has 269 electoral votes – even if he has more electoral votes than the other guys – he does not win the presidency. Rather, the House determines who will be president by choosing from the top three candidates in the Electoral College, with each State’s delegation having one vote. My point is that denying the Party nomination to a candidate with fewer than a majority of delegates is really no different than denying the presidency to a candidate with fewer than a majority of electoral votes. The popular voting is relevant, but a separate process determines the winner.
Ultimately, it is unclear whether this strategy will work; it depends substantially upon winner-take-all states going to non-Trump candidates. If Trump wins both Ohio and Florida, his position is immensely stronger. So it may not work, but it is not a crackpot theory. Most primary voters, overwhelmingly, are not voting for Trump. He has been far weaker in closed primaries than open ones thus far. His delegate lead is less than 100 over Cruz at the moment. And while he can claim to have a lot of loyalists who will vote for him no matter what, so, too, are there those who will never vote for him no matter what, including in November. So the Never Trump movement may ultimately prove unsuccessful, but it is built upon legitimate political (and moral) opposition and a mathematical strategy that is not, under the circumstances, unreasonable.