The Brokered Convention Blunder

By planning for a contested convention, the RNC is playing right into Trump’s hands.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Donald Trump, pictured in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Dec. 4, 2015, already seems to be laying groundwork for the idea that a contested convention would be unfair for him.

Photo by Jonathan Drake/Reuters

In their drive to stop Donald Trump—or contain him, at least—Republican leaders have forgotten the only lesson that matters here: Fear is the mind killer.

First—out of anxiety that Trump might partake in a third-party run—they tried to bind his hands with a pledge to support the eventual nominee. We’ll see if the goal of blocking an independent Trump run actually holds up. In the meantime, the pledge has done more to bind the GOP to Trump than the reverse; even after denouncing his plans as dangerous and authoritarian, key Republican leaders still say they’d support Trump if he wins the nomination. They’re stuck to Trump, and they don’t know how to escape.

Now they’re making another panicked move to try to unbind themselves. On Monday, report Robert Costa and Tom Hamburger for the Washington Post, more than 20 GOP officials and “leading figures in the party’s establishment” met for a dinner held by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, where they discussed the prospect of a “brokered convention.” The specific scenario under consideration was one in which Trump were to hold a “significant number of delegates” but not enough to win the nomination on the “first ballot,” when pledged delegates—people bound to their candidates—place their votes.

“[S]everal longtime Republican power brokers argued that if the controversial billionaire storms through the primaries, the party’s establishment must lay the groundwork for a floor fight in which the GOP’s mainstream wing could coalesce around an alternative,” wrote Costa and Hamburger. Likewise, one of the most prominent participants—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—acknowledged that “a deadlocked convention” was something “the party should prepare for.”

It’s worth saying, now, that the potential brokered convention is a perennial story. Each cycle, on either side, someone floats the idea of a floor fight for the nomination. And each cycle, it’s a moot point, as the primary ends with an unambiguous winner, whether it was Barack Obama in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012.

With that said, it’s remarkable to see actual Republican leaders hold a serious meeting on the question of a brokered convention, even if it grew out of a regular gathering of party officials. It shows real fear among GOP elites—fear that Trump could win the nomination, and destroy the Republican Party as they know it, or at least cost them the White House for another four years (to say nothing of what “Trumpism” might mean for future Republican politicians).

At least in the short term, the meeting was a bad move tactically. As mentioned, Republicans leaders don’t just have to fear a Trump nomination; their other nightmare is if Trump runs as an independent, taking votes from the Republican nominee and giving the election to the Democrats. If there’s anything that might encourage an independent Trump bid—or make one more palatable to his ostensibly Republican supporters—it would be the idea that the party is conspiring against him, undermining its own part of the pledge and empowering him to abandon the party, full stop.

Indeed, Trump already seems to be laying groundwork for the idea that a contested convention would be an unfair one to Trump. “I’ll be disadvantaged,” Trump told the Post last week. “My disadvantage is that I’d be going up against guys who grew up with each other, who know each other intimately, and I don’t know who they are, OK? That’s a big disadvantage. … These kind of guys stay close. They all know each other. They want each other to win.”

Republicans accomplish nothing by discussing a brokered convention, and risk a future where Trump decides to cast the GOP aside for his own, third-party campaign. It’s a foolish play, born of fear. It’s much better to wait. Yes, Trump leads, but that doesn’t mean he’ll win votes. If Super Tuesday comes, and Trump is still ahead, then it will be time to panic. For now, however, the best bet for Republicans is to watch quietly and hopefully, and continue to back more mainstream candidates for the nomination.