Why some Trump backers feel GOP is hijacking the nomination

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Monday, March 7, 2016, in Madison, Miss. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Donald Trump may still have a long road ahead before he can secure the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination, and his enemies within the party appear poised to fight him every step of the way to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Super PACs, politicians, and pundits who believe Trump would be a disastrous failure as a general election candidate have grown more active in recent weeks as Trump's standing in the polls has slipped and he has under-performed in some races.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, blasted Trump in a speech last week and called on supporters of his three remaining rivals to vote strategically and block him from receiving a majority of delegates. That would force the party into a contested convention where delegates, many of them chosen by the establishment, would decide who to nominate.

Other Republicans have floated the idea of running a more conservative third party candidate against Trump if he does win. Donors who were once shy about taking on Trump have become more willing to chip into super PAC campaigns against him, and more than 13,000 people have signed an online pledge to never vote for Trump.

Supporters of Trump remain fiercely loyal, though, and some have been angered by the party establishment's war on their favored candidate.

"For the establishment or these intellectual conservatives to be against Trump and actively working against him, I believe it's absolutely insane," Herman Cain, a 2012 presidential candidate, told Fox News last week.

"Not in memory has the leadership of a party been so out of touch. The Republican rank and file are in revolt, not only against the failures of their fathers but the policies of their present rulers," conservative commentator and three-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan wrote for WorldNetDaily.

"Sorry, the panic attack is unbecoming and it's a low blow for democracy," wrote Boston Herald columnist Adriana Cohen of Romney's speech. "The voters have spoken and Donald Trump is the new face of the GOP."

The push-back against Trump may be coming too late, as he has amassed nearly 400 delegates and is still leading in polls in many of the remaining states.

"This should have happened six months ago if they wanted to win," said Gregory Koger, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, of the anti-Trump effort.

"If they were then as horrified at the prospect of a Trump candidacy as they say they are today, then yes, they should have spoken sooner," said Stephen Craig, professor of political science and director of the Political Campaigning Program at the University of Florida.

Given that Trump steamrolled over a wide field of candidates, several of whom were vocal critics of his campaign, Craig is skeptical that early intervention by the establishment that Trump's supporters hate would have halted his rise. He emphasized, though, that Trump has not locked down the nomination yet, so there is still time to fight.

"As long as other candidates continue to have some measure of success...I don't think that [Trump's nomination] is inevitable and I don't think the Republican establishment need regard it as inevitable."

"They have a constitutional right to speak their mind," Koger said, and he noted that the Supreme Court upheld their right to donate millions to super PACs. In addition to coming late, though, the machinations against Trump within the party are also abnormally public.

At this point, he said, in the eyes of Trump supporters who have celebrated his victories, "it seems as though they're trying to override the outcome of many of the first few primaries."

While the resistance to Trump within his own party is highly unusual, Craig said it needs to be thought of in the proper historical context. Prior to the 1960s, presidential candidates were chosen by the party with little input from the voters.

The closest precedent he is aware of was the failed effort by Mitt's father George Romney and other moderate Republicans to stop the nomination of conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964.

"The system that we have now was designed to minimize the influence of party elites," said Michael Traugott, professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. The party establishment actively campaigning against the leading candidate may interfere with the will of voters.

Not all of Trump's critics would consider themselves part of the "Republican establishment." Super PACs backing Sen. Ted Cruz, a candidate loathed by many in Washington, have run ads against Trump in key states.

Some in the tea party movement have also chosen Cruz over Trump and are speaking out against the billionaire real estate developer. More than 100 Republican national security experts with varying connections to the GOP have signed onto a letter declaring that Trump would make the country less safe.

Advocates of the #NeverTrump movement argue that the Republican Party's rules allow for a contested convention if Trump fails to obtain the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination. They say strategizing for that scenario does not constitute sabotage of Trump and does not disenfranchise his supporters.

"A candidate who has broken every rule of decorum and substance should not complain when others do not observe conventional rules," Michael Barone wrote in a recent National Review column.

"When losing to the star of a reality TV show, is it really so crazy to resort to reality-show tactics to defeat him?" asked Jonah Goldberg in another National Review post defending the plan to challenge Trump at the convention if he does not have enough delegates.

"Trump is stoppable, according to the rules," Goldberg said. "And if he is stopped and that makes you sad, don't hate the players, hate the game."

Experts see a substantial difference between establishment politicians taking on Trump now and seizing the nomination from him at the convention in July if he has a plurality of delegates.

"It's not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of respecting the process," Craig said. The nomination process is still ongoing, so party leaders have a right to offer their opinions on any of the candidates, but if Trump is close to a majority of delegates when the primaries are over, nominating someone else may be seen as subverting the electorate.

"The Trump supporters will feel like they've been robbed," Koger said.

Many who oppose Trump believe his nomination could cost Republicans control of the Senate and impact the future direction of the Supreme Court. They see acting against an existential threat to the party as justified, even if it is somewhat counter-intuitive to oppose their own most likely nominee.

If that is truly their position, even his nomination may not silence the opposition. Koger said the Republican National Committee needs to formally accept and support its nominee, but the rest of the party, the donors, and interest groups concerned about the future are free to stand against him.

"They're under no obligations and Trump represents the absolute defeat of the rest of the party," he said. In their view, Trump has embraced the worst elements of the party and rejected the conservative principles that they have fought for.

"If Trump becomes the nominee and moves the party toward his cluster of issue positions...they've lost utterly," Koger said. "They've lost for a generation, and it's understandable that they would do anything to prevent that from happening, even if it means losing this cycle."

"It's a perfectly rational thing to do," Traugott said of criticism from that wing of the party, but the voters will still be the ones who decide whether Trump earns a majority of the delegates.

It is unclear what effect the effort to stop Trump is having. He lost three races over the weekend and the margin in the two he won was much closer than polls had predicted, but there was no exit polling to establish why people voted as they did.

A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday found that Romney's speech has had little impact, making only 5 percent of Trump supporters less likely to vote for him while further energizing 56 percent of his backers to stick with him.

Establishment politicians' criticism of Trump could come back to haunt Republicans if he receives the nomination and the party gets behind him in the general election.

"The things they're saying about him even while they're saying, 'Yes, I'll support the Republican nominee,' they're writing the Democrats' playbook," Craig said.

"I think those are hard words to walk back," Koger said of the more extreme criticism coming from people like Romney and Rubio.

Those Republicans may choose not to vote at all for president.

"They don't think [Trump] represents the party," Traugott said. "They're not going to give up on the party, but they won't support him personally."

Craig predicted a close election in November regardless who is nominated, but he cautioned that this year has been so unusual that typical expectations may not apply.

"Anyone who tells you that they know what's going to happen," he said, "tell them they're idiots and walk away...We are in truly uncharted territory."

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