Can Donald Trump avoid the trap of a contested GOP convention?

If Trump wins both Ohio and Florida, he seems assured a path to the nomination. But he's not the favorite in Ohio.

Mic Smith/ AP/ File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, S.C. in this file photo from In this Dec. 7, 2015, file photo, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

Will Donald Trump be able to avoid a contested convention? We might know the answer to that question after today.

If Mr. Trump wins both the Florida and Ohio primaries, he’ll likely cruise to the nomination. In part that’s because he’d get a big delegate sweep from these winner-take-all states. In part it’s because these wins would signify that he’s gaining momentum and should acquire the 1,237 delegates necessary for victory before primary season ends on June 7.

But if Trump loses Florida, or Ohio, or both, his pathway to 1,237 would narrow. And he’s not the favorite in Ohio: Gov. John Kasich has an 86 percent chance of winning his home state, according to the FiveThirtyEight data site’s primary projection. Governor Kasich leads by about 3-1/2 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitic's polling average.

A narrow path isn’t the same as a blocked one. Trump could well still win. He’d just have to haul himself over some metaphorical fallen trees to get there.

But that might be more of a struggle than you’d think, given Trump’s frontrunner status. Favorable scenarios have Trump crossing the finish line in late May or June. Unfavorable ones have him falling just short, as if snagged by a low-hanging branch or blocked by an angry bear.

The GOP’s anti-Trump crowd is emphasizing the possibility of the latter, of course. Our Principles PAC, formed in January to counter the Donald, earlier this month put out a memo stressing that he could still be stopped.

“Given the current dynamics of the race, it will be difficult for Donald Trump to win the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination,” the memo concludes.

Enter a contested convention. Please. A convention that actually decides something – and is not a three-day infomercial for a pre-selected nominee – would be a once-in-a-lifetime event for journalists. It would be Woodstock without the mud, plus rental cars and free food.

Delegates are bound to vote according to the results of their state primaries or caucuses for the first ballot. Some state rules bind delegates for a round or two more. After that, it’s free play. Delegates can vote for whomever they please, including candidates who didn’t run in primary season.

Remember, this would not be an unscripted, ad hoc occurrence. The #NeverTrump forces are planning their strategy for a contested convention at this moment. Uprisings take work.

Sasha Issenberg has a timeline for contested convention planning up today at Bloomberg View. In March, the anti-Trump cabal will be looking for “double agents,” Mr. Issenberg writes – delegates bound to Trump who personally oppose him. Once set free, they would run to vote for someone else.

In April and May, the cabal will deal with GOP governors or other state leaders who have influence with their own delegations. They’ll troll for delegates who can be (legally) bought via payment for their convention expenses or some other enticement.

In June, if it’s clear Trump is short of a delegate majority, they’ll put pressure on the Republican Party apparatus to investigate and perhaps disqualify suspect delegations. Remember the chaos at the Nevada caucuses? Expect that to come up again.

Then in July, GOP party officials will gather in Cleveland prior to the convention’s start to establish rules and handle other committee business. They could start setting the stage for an uprising on the floor, perhaps by revisiting the RNC’s Rule 40, which sets criteria for candidates to appear on convention ballots.

“This is where the establishment has effectively unchecked power to begin squeezing out a candidate it does not want to see nominated,” Issenberg writes.

Would this be fair? Trump supporters might say something more pungent than simply “no.” Their reply could create chaos and possibly rip the party apart.

Trump commands a hard core of around 35 percent of GOP voters nationally; many of them might stay home if their man is replaced. And Trump almost certainly will emerge from the primaries with the most state victories and the most delegates, by far. Why should someone he’s already defeated replace him? Or worse, why should someone who never ran at all get the top prize?

One reason why: It’s happened before. For some 160 years, the GOP has required that its nominees win a majority of convention delegates, writes RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende. Among those who’ve lost under these rules: James Blaine, who had 45.9 percent of delegates in early rounds of 1876 convention voting; Leonard Wood, who had 45.5 percent in 1920; and Tom Dewey, who had 36.1 percent in 1940.

If it only took a plurality to win, a candidate who is really the convention’s second or third choice could emerge as the winner. That’s where the GOP could be headed this year: Trump loses one-on-one match-ups with some of his rivals, according to polls. But they’ve split the anti-Trump vote perfectly, allowing him to lead despite national support that averages out to about 36 percent of GOP ballots cast, so far.

“You can’t steal something from someone who has no legitimate claim to it, and the rules here do not give someone a legitimate claim to the nomination without a majority of the delegates. If Trump can’t get that majority to back him, he will lose, and it will be because he should,” writes Mr. Trende.

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