How the #NeverTrump movement could drive the GOP over a cliff
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a town hall campaign event in Hickory, North Carolina March 14, 2016. (REUTERS/Chris Keane)

It's impossible to overstate the disaster anti-Trump Republicans are inviting as they maneuver to deprive their party's front-runner of the nomination. The #NeverTrump coalition believes it can select someone other than Donald Trump because the rules say they can. It's a profound delusion, and one that could lead to unprecedented chaos in Cleveland. They appear to be oblivious about the white-hot fury against the “establishment” that led to Trump and Ted Cruz dominating the primaries in the first place. (Those who think they can screw over both Trump and the equally loathsome Cruz and give the nomination to someone like House Speaker Paul Ryan are especially disconnected from reality.)

The GOP built that fury by promising their voters that if they gave Republicans control of Congress, they'd undo Barack Obama's agenda despite the fact that doing so would require a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the president's signature, and now they're blinded to the conservative backlash that has resulted from their inability to deliver.

A YouGov/ Economist poll released last week found that 70 percent of Republicans believe that violence is “likely” or “very likely” to break out during the convention. Trump himself has warned of riots in the streets of Cleveland; this week he told a crowd that the RNC would face a “rough July” if the party didn't treat him “fairly.”

Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally and infamous “dirty trickster” told Politico that he would release the names and hotel rooms of disloyal delegates to the mob. "We’re going to have protests, demonstrations,” he promised. That may be campaign bluster, but Stone was the driving force behind the “Brooks Brothers Riot” during the 2000 Florida recount – he's got a track-record. And Sarah Burris reported that Republican delegates from Indiana and Colorado's GOP chair have already received a slew of death threats.

Trump's followers are not the hippies Chicago police attacked in 1968 – they've been told that they're caught between a corrupt establishment above and predatory brown people below, and that they're losing their country as a result. Throughout the primaries, Trump has dominated among Republican voters who say they're “very angry.” They're a powder-keg waiting for a spark.

In order to avoid a shit-show of epic proportions in Cleveland – a potential extinction event for the GOP coalition – the anti-Trump coalition not only needs to keep Trump below the 1,237-delegate threshold to secure the nomination, they also need to deprive him of a compelling argument that he should be the nominee. At this point, that seems unlikely. The consensus among delegate numbers-crunchers surveyed by FiveThirtyEight is that Trump will come up just a few delegates short, Larry Sabato projects Trump going into the convention with 1,239 and Frontloading HQ has him at 1,279.

Cruz and his allies are chipping away at Trump's delegate count. Cruz is out-hustling the Trump campaign at state conventions, grabbing delegates that Trump would likely have won had he worked for them. The #NeverTrump campaign is also courting an unknown number of “dark delegates” – party activists and elected officials who are bound to the front-runner on the first ballot but would switch to Cruz or some other savior if Trump comes up short.

And Politico reports that “anti-Trump billionaires are funding ground operations in an increasing number of states to try to ensure the selection of national convention delegates who oppose Trump.” Officials with the Our Principles PAC's said that “they intend to keep up the pressure all the way through the end of July’s Republican National Convention, possibly including trying to steer the nomination to an alternative candidate.”

Their big problem is that Cruz is projected to secure between 600 and 700 delegates heading into the convention. So even of all of these efforts bump up his delegate count to 750 or 800, and keep the front-runner well below 1,200, Trump's claim that the party is cheating him will be a compelling one. GOP officials can cite the rules, and political scientists can tell us that the parties have always decided their nominees, but the larger public embraces the idea that voters pick their candidates. It's become a deeply-held norm in the 40 years that we've held real primaries, and Trump's appeal to small-d democratic principles will resonate with most voters. According to a recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, 62 percent of Republican primary voters said that the candidate with the most votes should be the nominee, and 71 percent said it would be “unacceptable” to give the nod to someone, like Paul Ryan, who hadn't even competed. Given that Trump has the support of 45 percent of GOP voters, that means a lot of people who aren't backing him are nonetheless receptive to his gripes about the “establishment” rigging the process.

We may see some fireworks before the convention even opens. During the preceding week, the RNC's Rules Committee will finalize the procedures that will be in place this year. They could make it easier for the #NeverTrump movement to pull a switcharoo, or they could make it all-but-impossible. Rules Committee members are already trading fire over the rules that will guide their meetings to determine the convention rules.

The #NeverTrump crowd may not know what they're in for, but it's clear that some see the writing on the wall. A number of top Republican officials have discovered that they have a scheduling conflict and can't make it to Cleveland. While Karl Rove calls Trump “a petty man consumed by resentment and bitterness,” Politico reports that his super PAC, American Crossroads, “is suggesting to its donors that it can help Trump win the White House and save Republican senators whose reelection bids could be jeopardized by having Trump at the top of the ticket.” And both parties are struggling to raise money to cover the costs of their conventions because corporations that typically donate to both parties are staying on the sidelines, worried about being associated with the potential chaos on the GOP side.

We'll be in relatively uncharted territory if there is a contested convention. The one thing that's clear is that it could be a pretty crazy ride.