This two picture combo of file photos shows Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Donald Trump. (AP Photo/File)
WASHINGTON – Donald Trump has spent months making the case that if he’s leading in delegates by the end of the GOP primaries, it’s only fair to award him the nomination, even if he’s fallen short of a majority.
Ted Cruz, among others, counters that rules are rules. If you don’t clinch, you’re not the nominee. That’s correct.
But for at least one group of Wal-Mart moms – an umbrella demographic that stands for much of the electorate – a sense of fair play trumps arcane rules. As focus groups in Pennsylvania this week revealed, depriving Trump of the prize if he’s ahead would deeply offend many voters.
That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It does mean that Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and their allies in the stop-Trump movement will face enormous public backlash if they wrestle the nomination away from him at a contested convention in July.
So they’d best be crafting a marketing plan to make that outcome more palatable.
“If there’s a chance that Trump goes in with the most delegates and then Cruz comes out with the nomination, I don’t think that’s fair. That’s terrible,” said a woman named Melody, a stylist who supports Trump.
She was one of 10 Pittsburgh-area Republicans gathered by GOP pollster Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster with Purple Strategies. The participants were granted anonymity. Like 60 percent of women with a child younger than 18 at home, across a vast range of income brackets, they’d shopped at Walmart in the last month.
Journalists were able to observe the discussion in real time.
Only half the women identified as Trump supporters. Several said they’d feel “cheated,” including some who support other candidates. Nearly all agreed that if Trump leads in delegates and votes, he deserves the nomination and if he doesn’t get it, the system – and the Republican Party – must be rigged, fixed and corrupt.
“I would feel totally misled,” said a woman named Melissa, a mother of three who works in real estate and supports Kasich. “I would not even want to participate. I would not want to vote. What is the point of us going to vote?”
Trump’s near sweep in the New York primary on Tuesday kept him on pace to just about clinch by the final primaries on June 7, though it’s still possible he will fall short. He’s more than two-thirds of the way there.
Republicans will have to convince voters that Donald Trump coming up short of the goal line for delegates isn’t a score any more than when wide receiver Dez Bryant was tackled just short of a touchdown in this 2014 Dallas Cowboys game. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Suppose Trump arrived at the convention in Cleveland six weeks later within 100 delegates of the magic number, unable to cajole enough uncommitted delegates to put him over the top, and someone else won the nomination on a second or third ballot, or even later?
“I just really would be so lost and so confused as to how our process could be that way,” said another Kasich supporter named Amy, mother of two and a college professor.
These Wal-Mart moms would empathize with Trump’s sense of betrayal. They’re well aware that a three-way race would likely hand the presidency to Democrats for another term. Their disgust still would drive them away. And don’t even get them started on the possibility the GOP nominates a “white knight” such as House Speaker Paul Ryan who wasn’t among the 17 original candidates.
“It would be horrible,” said Pam, a secretary with three kids who supports Trump. “It says that our voices aren’t heard and they don’t care about us.”
In a separate session, Philadelphia-area swing voters echoed these views.
“It’s like taking the guess on how many candies are in the jar. Whoever gets closest, even if you don’t get that number, you win,” said a homemaker named Caitlin, a mother of three who would probably vote for Trump over Clinton, and Clinton over Cruz.
Cruz and the Republican National Committee have been stepping up their game on messaging, seeking better and more relatable ways to explain the “rules are rules” mantra.
RNC communications director Sean Spicer pointed out that in the recount election of 2000, Democrat Al Gore collected the most popular votes but readily acknowledged that he needed a majority in the Electoral College. Spicer also pointed to a close vote on the Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare law much reviled by Republicans.
“No one said, ‘Hey, if it’s close, it should pass.’ That’s not how it works,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper the other day. “There’s no other time that we would ever say — whether it’s politics or sports — ‘Hey, if you get to the 2-yard line, well that counts as a touchdown.’ That’s just not how the rules work.”
But hardly any of the Wal-Mart moms find a Trump presidency alarming. That sets them apart from GOP insiders who foresee electoral catastrophe with Trump atop the ticket, or rock-ribbed conservatives dismayed by his ideological flexibility.
And Cruz found little affection in this focus group. Asked to name an animal he reminds them of, one said gorilla, “because it’s very close to being a human.” Another said “your neighbor’s dog.… It might be OK, but you’re never too sure.”
So, they’re less inclined to rationalize an outcome that keeps the nomination from Trump. And it means the stop Trump alliance has a lot of explaining to do.
“Voter education between now and July – that would be an incredible undertaking,” said pollster Newhouse. “That fairness argument would be very difficult to overcome.”