For many Republicans, US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas marked the party’s best hope to keep Donald Trump from winning the nomination, and Indiana’s primary was the last contest where it could happen.
Instead Cruz lost miserably and dropped out of the race on Tuesday, marking yet another failed effort by a Trump foe to stop his momentum. Now Trump is on the verge of history, becoming the first person to be nominated for president without prior elected office experience in 64 years.
At least Cruz has company in failure. For months, many Republicans — operatives, other presidential candidates, leaders in the party’s establishment in Washington, D.C. — have tried to stop Trump because they view his controversial candidacy as detrimental to the party’s future.
Earlier this year, many of these Republicans tried to coordinate their efforts under the #NeverTrump banner on Twitter, with organization and advertising in certain primary states. Other Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, publicly warned voters about Trump’s flaws as a candidate.
Today, their joint efforts, organized and informal, might as well have been called #NeverStopTrump. Interviews with Republican strategists who opposed Trump yielded a few reasons why their combined efforts came up (far) short:
Last summer, when Trump entered the race, most of the other Republican candidates were still trying to become known in the largest GOP field in a generation. As they fought for their own air time, none of the top contenders spent much time attacking Trump.
Not that it would have helped: Almost everyone in the country knows Trump. He had a major head start on the other candidates thanks to his businesses, showmanship, and reality television program. Meanwhile other candidates were just trying to get voters to know their name in Iowa and New Hampshire.
By September, Republicans realized that Trump was a force in the race, but many of them still did not take him seriously. After all, as recently as 2012, voters flirted with former Minnesota US representative Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain — before those candidates quickly fell off the polling chart.
As a result, Trump was never subject to the scrutiny and attacks that other front-runners have received, said Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Romney.
“Every campaign, and even a lot of outside observers, either assumed that Trump would collapse on his own or either the media or one of the other campaigns would focus their efforts on him and take him out,” said Madden. “That never happened.”
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ended his presidential campaign in September, he publicly challenged other Republican candidates to consolidate behind a standard-bearer for the party. More than six months later, Romney called for all the remaining Trump foes and donors to work together to oppose the front-runner.
But no one listened to Walker or Romney until it was too late.
“The reason that Trump wasn’t stopped by the party establishment is that the major donors funding the establishment sat on the sidelines for too long,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant who worked for former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s campaign.
As late as the New Hampshire primary, Trump’s opponents dismissed him and his supporters. Now there is no doubt that his message of economic populism struck a nerve with an anxious middle class concerned that the country’s economic changes were leaving them behind.
Trump spoke directly to that anger and channelled it in a way no other Republican could. Bush, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ohio Governor John Kasich argued it wasn’t enough to be angry, and candidates must have plans to fix these problems. But voters weren’t listening to proposed solutions.
In the end, no other GOP candidate empathized with their anxieties like Trump.
Many who oppose Trump point out that the vast majority of Republicans this year voted for a candidate who wasn’t Trump in the primary. This is both true and the problem.
Instead of a single alternative, four candidates competed last fall to be the GOP establishment’s anti-Trump. After that, Cruz, who also tried to be that Trump alternative, failed to get the establishment behind him. He also could not convince Kasich to drop out of the race to make it a two-person contest.
But if there was one clear moment when the Never Trump movement failed, it was when US House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin took himself out of the running to be drafted at a contested convention. After that, many party members could not see a consensus candidate who could emerge.
It’s possible, even likely, that Democrats will benefit from the failure of many Republicans who tried and failed to stop Trump. First, they will have an earlier start to launch their attacks, knowing they should take Trump seriously. Secondly, they can be more organized as a single campaign fighting to defeat him instead of a splintered effort.
As the general election begins, polls suggest that Trump has long odds to win the presidency anyway. Polling suggests he is the most disliked major party nominee in modern American history. But Trump also began the Republican primary as by far the most disliked candidate in the field — and now he’s all but coronated as the GOP’s nominee for president.