Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ohio University Eastern Campus in St. Clairsville on June 28. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
On cable news, Twitter and a few conference calls, the debate over dumping Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention is fierce. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s insistence that delegates could vote their “conscience” is read as the high-sign to undo the primaries; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) musing about the same is a clue that he is ready to save the party.
But with three weeks to go before the convention nominates a candidate for president, Trump’s recent hires and his discovery of a teleprompter (a device he once suggested should disqualify any user from the presidency) have led to a tentative sense of calm. Bad poll numbers are not enough to scare them into what would be a historic rejection of a primary winner.
“It’s still a long way between now and the election,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who leads the platform committee. “A lot can happen between now and then. Just from watching morning TV, you can see that the polls don’t even agree with each other. Are you looking at national numbers? Are you looking at the battleground states? Florida, Ohio, Colorado – they’re very tight. If the election really comes down to change versus more of the same, Hillary should be very concerned, because Donald Trump will win. I think Donald Trump is giving some very good speeches, because he’s staying to a script. He wrote it out ahead of time. He delivered it. He didn’t step on it.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, dozens of members of the 112-member rules committee said there should be no change to the binding of delegates. When asked if a different Republican candidate could compete more strongly than Trump, their response was most often frustration that the presumptive nominee kept having to put out fires.
“I feel that going against the voters will tear our party apart and only give the Democrat presumptive candidate the edge,” said Rosie Tripp, a rules committee member from New Mexico. “Donald Trump can win this election. He has won the right to be our candidate fair and square. He followed all the rules and should now be our candidate.”
Christine Glassner, a rules committee member from New Jersey, was just as adamant that the party’s high-profile rebels needed to give up. “Delegates that believe that they should try to change the rules and vote for who they want instead of who the voters want are the ones that have no conscience,” she said.
The argument between the “unbind the delegates” campaigners and the rest of the party uses most of the same facts. The difference: Where Trump opponents see impossibly bad polling, Trump allies see opportunity.
“I’m optimistic about where the campaign is headed,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “There are very high numbers in your poll, like 87 percent of Republicans are already saying they’re supporting Trump, and that number will grow.”
Not since 1996 has the Republican Party entered its convention with its presumptive nominee trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee as badly as Trump trails Clinton. In a widely-circulated poll today, sponsored by Ballotpedia, a theoretical candidacy by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) polled much stronger than Trump.
But the two stumbling blocks for the “unbind” effort have been ignored by pollsters. One is that the candidate with the best claim on the nomination after Trump is not Kasich, or Ryan, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who in trial heats conducted before he quit the race lagged behind Clinton by about the same margin as Trump. Another is that, in the 40 years in which both parties have held 50-state nominating contests, no candidate who entered a party convention with a majority of pledged delegates has ever been denied a nomination. While a CNN poll this week found 52 percent of Republican voters unhappy with the presumptive nominee, there is no way to gauge how the winning candidate’s base or November electorate would view a “coup.”
Instead of pondering that, most Republicans are choosing to think of how Trump can evolve to win.
“It started two weeks ago,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “He had a meeting with about 10 different top policy people — and the reason I’m aware of this is that one of them worked for me. Apparently, up in Trump Tower, they talked about different issues and they all said he seemed to be a lot more presidential.”
With that in mind, Inhofe could not imagine why other Republicans would skip the convention or try to oust Trump. “It’s just beyond me,” he said. “What you’re saying, if you’re not fully in support of Trump at this point, is that you’re supporting Hillary Clinton. I’m gonna be in Cleveland in full support of Trump.”
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