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What's Next For The GOP In This Topsy-Turvy, Anything-Can-Happen Election?

L-R, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz in Milwaukee; Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Laramie, Wyo. Both photos taken Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (AP)
L-R, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz in Milwaukee; Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Laramie, Wyo. Both photos taken Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

The GOP’s presidential primary is giving new meaning to the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Indeed, the primary looks like it won’t be resolved until a contested convention is settled in Cleveland in mid-July.

But with apologies to Berra, if there is one thing that has been consistent about this election cycle, it is that there has been nothing consistent about this election cycle. As a result, it has been treacherous for pundits trying to make reliable predictions.

Yet, after Ted Cruz’s victory Tuesday night in Wisconsin, even the most optimistic supporter of Donald Trump would have a difficult job arguing that he will emerge from the primary with the 1,237 Republican delegates necessary to become the party’s nominee prior to the convention. In other words, a contested convention is a near certainty.

if there is one thing that has been consistent about this election cycle, it is that there has been nothing consistent about this election cycle.

The Republican Party apparently recognizes this probability. On Tuesday, GOP leaders met to dust off the party playbook and discuss the nuts and bolts of a floor fight, multiple rounds of delegate voting and other intricacies that make up a contested convention.

After Wisconsin, the roughly 65 percent of the GOP electorate that don’t support Trump smell blood in the water. They recognize the renewed opportunity. And this opening may yet breathe life into the zombie campaign of John Kasich (and perhaps even the campaign of Marco Rubio, who still controls 172 delegates despite having dropped out of the race last month).

This is also good news for some mainstream Republicans who are rightfully concerned when, for instance, they see former business allies delaying and cancelling convention sponsorships, apparently afraid of what a Trump victory would mean for their brands. Wisconsin may well have changed this trajectory.

A contested convention is also becoming increasingly appealing to Republicans who are willing to open the proceedings to a robust debate rather than ceding the party to Trump. Such a blood-letting may be what the party needs. Recent conventions failed to connect with the GOP's grassroots. Those conventions were often lock-step marches to coronate uninspiring candidates with moribund speeches that left many wondering what the GOP stood for.

The threats of some Trump supporters to throw a collective tantrum and abandon the GOP come November ring a bit hollow now. Whether or not a percentage of them would sit on their hands and refuse to vote in the general election — or, should Trump mount a third-party run if he does not emerge from the convention as the nominee — GOP observers can plainly see that Trump significantly trails the likely Democratic nominee in general election polls.

GOP delegates will have one eye on those general election matchups, and this reality would make a candidate like Kasich — who easily beats Hillary Clinton in those same polls -- all the more attractive on the crowded convention floor. This would also make Trump’s job to win over 1,237 delegates far more difficult.

But don’t let anyone tell you that the primary election is over or that the general election outcome is a foregone conclusion.

In this regard, Clinton’s growing campaign weakness — evidenced by her losing seven of the last eight primary contests to Bernie Sanders, her continued high negatives among likely voters and the stubborn drumbeat of an ongoing FBI investigation, play strongly into this narrative. This is an election cycle where, remarkably, the GOP could still win the White House. And this possibility may drive the decision making of the party’s delegates.

The GOP still faces myriad overwhelming challenges in this cycle’s messy process of trying to redefine itself after years of neglecting its core principles and grassroots electorate. But don’t let anyone tell you that the primary election is over or that the general election outcome is a foregone conclusion. Stay tuned. Much history is still yet to be made.

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John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.

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