Rarely in modern history has a party appeared as divided over its nominee as Republicans are over Donald Trump. But will his GOP critics really keep their backs turned through November, or will they come around?
Some leaders of the conservative movement claim they will never vote for him — not only think-tank intellectuals, but also members of Congress, such as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Columnist George F. Will, once a backstairs advisor to Ronald Reagan, says good Republicans shouldn't merely withhold their votes, but work to make sure Trump loses all 50 states — to make sure Trumpism is discredited forever.
And yet, as Trump's nomination becomes more certain, more Republicans are finding nice things to say about the businessman.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Trump had done an impressive job attracting new voters to GOP primaries. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said Trump's centrist positions might have bipartisan appeal. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump was showing promise as a foreign policy thinker. Rep. Duncan Hunter, one of Trump's earliest backers in Congress, offered a more practical assessment: “People like to be with the winner.”
And that is what's really going on here. Republicans aren't falling in love with Trump; they just figure that, since the real estate promoter is about to become the leader of their party, it's better to grit their teeth and hope for the best than to fight a losing battle. Even Jeb Bush, whose presidential hopes were demolished by Trump, now says he will support the nominee. He just won't say his name.
But the never-say-#NeverTrump Republicans have a problem: In private, many of them — perhaps most of them — don't think Trump can win the general election.
“The structural problem of the Trump candidacy is his ‘unfavorable' numbers,” GOP pollster David Winston told me. “Among women, who — did I mention? — are the majority of the electorate, his unfavorables are in the 70s. Those aren't easy numbers to turn around, particularly when a candidate has had as much exposure as Trump.”
That's why even if, in the end, few Republican politicians will actively oppose Trump, many won't actively support him either.
One bellwether to watch: how many Senate candidates in tough races decide to skip the Republican National Convention, which is likely to be a weeklong celebration of everything Trump.
“You're going to see a lot of Senate candidates staying home and doing their own knitting that week,” GOP strategist Scott Reed told me.
Instead of focusing on the presidential campaign, many in the GOP — not just candidates, but also activists and donors — will focus on congressional races.
Republicans are terrified that a Trump defeat would lose the GOP its majority in the Senate, which they gained only two years ago. Some even worry that a Democratic landslide could endanger the GOP's majority in the House of Representatives.
In some states, candidates “are going to depend on people who are voting for [Democrat Hillary] Clinton to switch sides and vote for the other party” when it comes to Congress, Winston noted. “That's hard to do.”
One answer: the program House Speaker Paul D. Ryan plans to unveil next month, aimed at giving GOP congressional candidates a list of conservative policies they can campaign on, whether they correspond to Trump's positions or not.
In effect, the GOP could enter the fall campaign with two different platforms: one espoused by its mercurial presidential candidate, the other by the more orthodox conservatives around Ryan.
“House candidates are going to need a sense of direction, and they don't necessarily want to rely on Trump to provide it,” Winston said. If Trump appears headed for defeat, the Ryan program could give them a lifeline.
Political parties can of course recover from bad elections — even from campaigns that divide them internally.
Four years after the 1964 election, which Republican candidate Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide, the GOP won the White House. And four years after Democrat George McGovern lost in the landslide of 1972, the Democrats came back too.
“Everybody writes off a party after it has a bad election,” Winston said. “After 2008, when Obama won, people said it was the end of the Republican Party. But two years later we had 2010 and won a majority in the House.”
To many Republicans, the prospect of a loss to Clinton's Democrats looks painful, but it also presents a familiar, even comfortable problem: At that point, their mission will be to make Clinton a one-term president.
The greater dilemma — the fear they won't acknowledge, at least in public — is that Trump might actually win. If that happens, conservatives who don't love their candidate will face four years of having to defend his policies and trying to tame his excesses. That's when their real troubles would begin.