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Storm Clouds Darken Over 2016

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

So now it has come to this. A near riot at Donald Trump’s Chicago rally on Friday evening may be a harbinger of things to come, not just at campaign events but in Cleveland for the Republican convention. The city’s leaders were wise to order extra riot gear recently. Whether Trump wins or loses the nomination, we suspect that tens of thousands of unhappy people will show up in the city’s streets.

For some of us, it’s a flashback to Chicago 1968 and the disastrous (for the Democrats and the Windy City) national convention that nominated Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The armed camp that was Chicago led to a week-long, tear-gassed melee that all but destroyed Humphrey’s chances of victory, though he came close in the end because a third-party candidate, George Wallace, drew votes disproportionately from Republican Richard Nixon. (Last year, we took a look at that divisive election in a documentary, Ball of Confusion, which is available on YouTube.) Could Nixon’s cry of law-and-order, coupled with his call for more conservative judges, be heard again on the trail this fall? The Supreme Court vacancy gives both parties an opening.

Trump’s remaining GOP challengers have blamed him in good part for the violence at his rallies. They have no choice, having whiffed at the final debate Thursday night. We celebrate the relatively civil, substantive, high-minded tone of that debate, but gaining the approval of Miss Manners doesn’t help trailing contenders very much.

This is an exceptionally close contest, with most projections putting Trump on track to win the plurality, but not necessarily the majority, of GOP convention delegates. To secure the magic number of 1,237, Trump will have to do well on what we call tomorrow’s Titanic Tuesday. He needs to defeat either or probably both John Kasich of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida in their home states, plus win a couple of the other trio of primaries (Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina). If he can’t do it, it’s not as though his rivals will jump ahead of him. Rather, Republicans might be headed for a contested convention -- and if you want to see what a nightmarish scenario this could be, then please read this treatise by the foremost expert on GOP convention rules, attorney and former RNC general counsel Ben Ginsberg. Our second piece in this issue of the Crystal Ball takes a more detailed look at the Tuesday contests.

An aside: It is possible the post-primary lull (June 8 to July 18, when the convention opens) will allow for behind-the-scenes negotiation to resolve the deadlock. The “brokers” would be the candidates and their staffs and agents. They had best find the famous table from the Paris Peace Talks that ended the Vietnam War, and hope that the negotiations don’t take nearly as long or require carpet bombing to achieve. Fortunately, Henry Kissinger is still active (at age 92) and might earn a second Nobel Peace Prize if he can bring the warring campaigns together.

We’ll have to see how many states Trump wins, and by what margins, as well as whether he is able to knock out Kasich and/or Rubio. Ted Cruz will be rooting hard for Trump to win the Buckeye and Sunshine states; he’s desperate to get the contest down to a two-man race, though it’s no sure thing that Cruz can triumph even then.

The obvious truth is that a large majority of high-ranking GOP officeholders and party leaders do not want either Trump or Cruz to head up their ticket. As we suggested in an earlier Crystal Ball, many of them will ignore the presidential nominee to the maximum extent possible. Yet voters may not do the same, and in an exceptionally partisan era, ticket-splitting isn’t what it once was.

A friend of the Crystal Ball who happens to be an elected Republican official recently quipped, “I’m still trying to figure out the least bad option. Then I’ll have something to hope for.” This isn’t the kind of upbeat sentiment you want to hear from the troops if you’re running Congress or the GOP.

Not incidentally, the Democrats are getting into the spirit of this divisive year and becoming quite a bit nastier. Hillary Clinton is frustrated that she is unable to shake a 74-year old socialist -- and losing young people, even young women, by a mile -- so her attacks on Bernie Sanders are escalating. Meanwhile, Sanders has become unhappy with Clinton’s broadsides and resentful of her built-in superadvantage with superdelegates.

Few doubt that Sanders will stay in all the way to the June 7 conclusion of the primary season. Sanders might even win more states than Clinton, and he’ll have a large contingent of fired-up delegates at the Philadelphia convention in late July. Sanders will demand concessions in the platform and perhaps even from a Clinton administration. His backers may insist that he be given the vice presidential nomination, which Clinton will strongly resist. The GOP may not be the only party wracked by bitter dissension this year.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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