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Now What Do the GOP Elites Do?

A Commentary by Fran Coombs

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The problem all along for the Republican elites opposed to Donald Trump is that they have no second act planned, and things just got worse for them after his latest collection of primary wins yesterday.

With Trump now over halfway to the delegate total needed to claim the GOP nomination and roughly 80% of Republican voters expecting him to be their nominee, are the elites going to continue their vicious advertising campaign against the billionaire businessman? Will Mitt Romney be joined by other prominent Republicans on the campaign trail to denounce Trump? At what point will GOP voters begin to wonder whether they – and not Trump – are the ones being opposed by the ostensible leaders of their own party?

With Marco Rubio out, it’s a three-person race, but not the one the elites wanted. Rasmussen Reports will release new numbers on the GOP contest later this week, so we’ll soon see where Rubio’s support goes.

John Kasich is likely to be the short-term beneficiary, but despite his homeboy win in Ohio yesterday, it’s impossible for him mathematically to win enough delegates in the remaining primaries to be the nominee. So Kasich’s days are numbered. Can Ted Cruz now beat Trump head-to-head? We’ll see, but he may be sorry for what he’s wished for.

Say for the sake of discussion that the elites stop Trump from gaining the Republican nomination, what next? Do they really believe the unprecedented coalition of voters Trump has brought to the polls are just going to fall in line behind another candidate, especially if he is outmaneuvered in a convention power grab? The other candidates, with the possible exception of Cruz, haven’t excited the voters up till now, so is that likely to change? A Romney repeat is laughable and rejected by GOP voters.

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So then where is the Republican Party? Trump is stopped, but Hillary Clinton gains. Clinton, for all her weaknesses as a candidate, is not going to be beaten by just any Republican, especially one who carries heavy social conservative baggage.

Even Trump, while gaining support on the GOP side, has now fallen slightly behind Clinton in a one-on-one matchup, but he alone of the Republican candidates holds the Reagan-like potential to peel Democrats away from Clinton.

This puts the GOP elites in a bad spot, and one they clearly haven’t thought out. Do they continue their public attack on the likely Republican nominee when it’s clear a vote against Trump is a vote for Clinton? Do they advocate a third-party option even after forcing Trump publicly to pledge not to run as an independent if he loses the Republican nomination? Do they dare suggest that a vote for Clinton is a better choice than a vote for the nominee supported by the voters in their own party?

It’s not a pretty picture for those who want to maintain control of the Republican party apparatus. But then it’s pretty clear that the new GOP is not their father’s party: The voter anger at the status quo and the unhappiness with the current breed of Republican leaders aren’t likely to go away after four years of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Equally risky for the GOP elites is making Trump angry enough to run as a third-party candidate. After all, he has complained in the past that they have not upheld their end of the deal with him, and if the elites maneuver Trump out of the nomination in any questionable fashion, he may run just to pay them back.

Right now, 36% of Republican voters say they are likely to vote for Trump if he runs as a third-party presidential candidate. That includes 24% who say they are Very Likely to do so, up six points from 18% last August. It isn’t difficult to see that number going up if Trump’s die-hard supporters see any funny business at the GOP convention. Again, Clinton benefits.

The argument that a Trump nomination will be a disaster for Republican candidates down the ticket is losing steam, too.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, perhaps the Republicans’ savviest political analyst, noted recently on Fox News that the GOP has two courses it can follow this year: The elites can reject Trump like they did voter favorite Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Republicans will lose horrendously like they subsequently did. Or, said Gingrich, the elites can embrace Trump, albeit reluctantly, like they did Ronald Reagan in 1980 and potentially win as big a victory this year as they did back then.

The New York Times reported recently on a closed-door meeting of Clinton’s top advisers, and when the topic of Trump came up, he was universally mocked and dismissed as a potential opponent by all those present. Only one person demurred: Former President Bill Clinton, still one of his party’s top political minds, warned that Trump was a very serious threat and should be treated accordingly.

It’s no accident that Hillary Clinton, President Obama and others have been increasingly critical of Trump in recent days. It’s also likely that the MoveOn.org protestors surfacing this past weekend at Trump events are a reflection of this increasing concern.

In short, Democrats are already preparing and reacting to a Trump nomination because they want to win. The GOP elites are still fighting the voters in their own party seemingly without a clue what to do next, while winning appears to be the furthest thing from their minds.

Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by  Fran Coombs .

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author at fran.coombs@rasmussenreports.com.

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