Eight days remain until the official start of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the stakes could not be higher for both Donald Trump and his opponents within the Republican Party.
For Mr. Trump, the convention is a highly visible opportunity to unite the party and to prove to conservatives unsettled by his candidacy that he is prepared to take on Hillary Clinton and advance a conservative agenda as president. For his opponents, it is their last chance to deprive Mr. Trump of the Republican nomination and to purge his dangerous rhetoric once and for all.
The trouble for anti-Trump forces now, however, is the same as it was toward the end of the primary season. Plenty of Republicans, especially the grassroots conservatives and party leaders who comprise the national convention delegation, dislike their party’s presumptive nominee, but none of the alternatives to Mr. Trump have attracted much support. Back in April, Texas senator and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz presented the greatest threat to Mr. Trump, but his failure to connect with moderates and establishment Republicans doomed his campaign. And in February, Florida senator Marco Rubio seemed well-positioned to become the leader of the anti-Trump coalition, but his base of support—though the broadest of the GOP field—was too shallow. After losing Virginia to Mr. Trump on March 1st, Mr. Rubio hemorrhaged his supporters to the rest of the field, ultimately exiting the race after a drubbing in his home state two weeks later.
These difficulties came before Donald Trump had managed to clinch his party’s nomination. Now that he has, the search for an alternative—already vexing—has become even more of a challenge. After much cajoling from GOP leadership, Mr. Rubio, who was Mr. Trump’s harshest critic throughout the primaries, decided to run for re-election in the U.S. Senate, crushing hopes that he might be willing to lead the fight against Mr. Trump at the convention. Other conservatives have shied away from mounting a public challenge to the presumptive nominee in order to avoid sacrificing their future in politics for a removal effort unlikely to succeed.
Others think that an intraparty clash in Cleveland would reflect poorly on the party and hamper efforts to unify Republicans before the November election. And in the absence of a clear alternative to Mr. Trump, the possibility of this sort of convention chaos skyrockets. With only a quarter of the members of the convention Rules Committee, which meets later this week, anti-Trump forces could force a vote on unbinding convention delegates to the convention floor, where only a majority vote would be needed to allow delegates to vote their conscience and oppose the presumptive nominee.
This is where things could get messy. The Wall Street Journal estimated that only about 900 of the 2,472 convention delegates are loyal to Mr. Trump, which means that a vote to unbind the national delegation—if successful—could leave behind a free-for-all battle for a delegate majority among any number of alternatives to the party’s presumptive nominee. In this scenario, armed with both the popular mandate and a significant chunk of the convention delegates, Mr. Trump would be at a significant advantage in any floor fight.
This presents a vexing problem. Putting forward a specific alternative to Mr. Trump would establish a binary choice for convention delegates, making a battle on the floor of the convention much easier to win. At the same time, however, whoever the alternative is will not be perfect, and naming him or her could nudge the Rules Committee members who dislike their alternative to avoid voting to unbind, stopping the anti-Trump effort from securing the floor vote in the first place.
It is likely that the Rules Committee votes to place a motion to unbind delegates before the entire national delegation. For committee members opposed to Trump, a vote on the convention floor is their only shot at stopping him. Other committee members, though ambivalent about or opposed to the anti-Trump movement, may see a floor vote as an opportunity to unify the party in the full view of the public and unflinching media attention.
“If we are a party of liberty,” one delegate wrote in an email to her fellow committee members, “what are we afraid of? [Trump] would come out of the Convention stronger if he won the nomination as a result of a FREE WILL vote.”
To overthrow their party’s nominee, anti-Trump forces will have to find an alternative who is likable enough, strong enough, and sufficiently well-known to build a sizable coalition behind his or her candidacy. But such a candidate, at least at this point, is nowhere in sight.