America's primaries

What now?


The Economist March 19th 2016


The Republican Party has run out of good options



THE primaries that took place on March 15th were meant to bring clarity to the race for the White House. Although they did not disappoint, neither did they reassure (see page 25). For the Republican Party, this is the moment when a driver realizes that a crash is coming and it is too late to brake. Their opponents have, barring disaster, picked Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee and she is now free to concentrate on the general election. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is likely to scrap and bluster his way to the nomination before the convention, or to go into it with a commanding lead.


For the party of Lincoln this is a disaster. Mr Trump is disliked so intensely by so many Americans that the damage to the party wrought by his nomination could go far beyond failing to win the White House, to hurting Republicans' chances in House and Senate races. That is why the Republican establishment (or what is left of it) is frenziedly searching for ways, from a brokered convention to supporting a third-party conservative, to stop the man who has mesmerized their party. Unfortunately, there are no good options.


All steamed up


If Mr Trump accumulates the 1,237 delegates that he needs to command an absolute majority in the convention, he will have won fair and square. There will be much to mourn, but little responsible conservatives can do.


The complications begin if the Republicans find themselves in a contested convention. On paper, the rules are simple: on the first ballot, almost all delegates are supposed to observe the preference of the primaries or caucuses in their state. If that round is inconclusive, they can then vote as they choose.

In practice this is a recipe for a savage battle. Aware that his lead could go up in a puff of smoke as delegates desert him in a second round of voting, Mr Trump this week warned of riots if he is deprived of the nomination. Halfway between a prediction and a threat, Mr Trump's words are one more reason he does not deserve the presidency.


But he is right that the taint of unfairness could poison the nomination. In a contested convention the delegates' individual actions are central: they not only select the nominee, but uhey also vote freely on changes to the rules-which they can skew to favour their personal choice. So who picks the delegates? Rules differ from state to state, but the answer is, largely, the very establishment that electors have rejected. As if that weren't complicated enough, the parties took steps in the 1960s to bind the conventions more closely to the results of the votes in primaries. Were the party to anoint anyone other than Mr Trump or the second-placed Ted Cruz, a divisive ideologue who is detested by his colleagues in the Senate, it would cause outrage. And rightly so.


The hard truth for the Republican Party (and thus, in a two-party system, for America) is that the lack of good options reflects a deep internal schism. The coalition between business, evangelicals, defence hawks and blue-collar voters has broken apart. The anger Mr Trump taps into is not unique to America: from France to Germany to America, between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate are tempted by populist parties. But in Europe that energy is channelled into seats in parliament and possible coalition governments. In America, the pipework narrows to a party's nominee and then the presidency.


That raises the stakes and makes a resolution harder. The Republican orthodoxy has no answer to the anger of Mr Trump's supporters. The challenge goes deeper than one man. Republicans have a long journey ahead to work out what sort of party they want. ■