— -- After months of back-channel buzz and intra-party bickering, the Never Trump movement to block the Republican nomination for president is over. Donald Trump is officially the Republican presidential nominee.
Consistently deemed one of the most divisive candidates in the history of presidential politics, all forces seemed to be in a place to stop Trump. He had a small campaign, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s ability to gain the support of unbound delegates proved he could easily be out-organized. He lacked support from the establishment, failing to gain endorsements from the likes of the Bushes and Mitt Romney. But none of that seemed to matter in the end. So, what went wrong?
Lack of a strong alternative
After 14 million votes were cast for Trump during the primary season, the toughest challenge that the Never Trump movement could not overcome was identifying an alternative candidate to rally around instead of the billionaire businessman.
As ballot deadlines for a third-party candidacy started to pass, Bill Kristol’s efforts to pull Mitt Romney into the race were declined. Even a 24-hour foray into the national spotlight for attorney David French fell apart before it ever really began. Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the last two Republican candidates standing with Trump, made clear they did not want to engage in complicated maneuvers that could have resulted in a floor fight at the convention to wrest the nomination away.
In a list-ditch effort, a small group of anti-Trump delegates began a movement advocating for delegates to unbind themselves. There was one problem: when -- and if -- they were able to unbind themselves and convince the Republican National Committee it was legitimate, who would they vote for?
Additionally, there seemed to be a disagreement between whether those who were anti-Trump should support a third-party candidate, or should work to replace Trump as the nominee.
For example, when Free the Delegates, the group working to unbind the delegates, invited Kristol and French onto one of their conference calls, Steve Lonegan, Cruz’s New Jersey state director who runs Courageous Conservatives and had been supporting the group, was not happy. They ultimately withdrew their support, telling ABC News they did not intend to support a third-party candidate, and that they had “strongly urged” Free the Delegates not to have Kristol and French on the call. “Very bad message,” Lonegan wrote in an email to ABC News.
At the RNC’s rules meetings last week, delegates supportive of Trump crushed the anti-Trump folks, contending that Trump was the not only the last candidate in the race, but also the only Republican raising money for a presidential campaign.
Timing, and a lack of support
Another glaring failure of the Never Trump movement was the timing of its execution and coordination. Had everyone who opposed Trump united behind one candidate and united earlier, maybe things could have turned out differently.
There were several disparate groups working to stop Trump, in various ways. Bill Kristol was trying to recruit a third-party candidate. Beau Correll, a delegate in Virginia, sued the state, arguing that it was unconstitutional for him to be bound to Trump. A small group from Colorado, known as “Free the Delegates” spearheaded by delegate Kendal Unruh, started strategizing to urge rules committee members to vote on allowing delegates to vote their conscience regardless of the candidate they were technically bound to support. Lonegan began running a radio advertisement in Iowa encouraging delegates to vote their conscience, and started planning for a whip operation at the convention. The group Delegates Unbound, founded by Eric O’Keefe and Dane Waters, began running ads as well.
Free the Delegates, which was coordinating with Delegates Unbound and Courageous Conservatives, began holding weekly conference calls, with appearances by Correll, Sen. Gordon Humphrey, radio host Steve Deace, and Lonegan. On one phone call, Kristol and French both spoke.
The first call saw nearly 1,000 strategists dial in, and the efforts had the Trump camp worried enough that delegates on subsequent calls said that they were getting phone calls, and even threats, from members of the Trump campaign not to join the unbind movement.
But there were just four weeks to go until the RNC convention, and three weeks to go until the rules committee would meet and decide its course of action. Despite the hustle to organize, many of the committee members, even those not pledged to Trump, seemed unwilling to rock the boat, especially when Trump had decisively won the most votes in the primary.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas GOP and member of the rules committee bound to Cruz, told ABC News when news of the group’s mission was publicized that he did not see himself making any drastic changes, and that he was going to do “what’s in the best interest of the GOP.” Cindy Costa took remarks a step further, telling ABC News at the time, “Donald Trump won it fair and square,” and any sort of unbinding clause would cause “magnificent chaos.”
So, it was not really a surprise that delegates on the rules committee also did not have sufficient support to change the convention rules binding delegates.
Technicalities of the Rules
As delegates moved Monday to approve a rules package that included a decree binding delegates, several rogue states worked to force a roll call vote, with the aim to eventually ensure delegates could vote their conscience.
While anti-Trump supporters believed they had a majority of delegate signatures from 10 state delegations (only seven were required), the RNC and Trump supporters flexed their muscles, pressuring several delegates to withdraw signatures from petitions demanding a roll call votes, pulling their states below a majority threshold. In the end, only six states clutched majorities, and the rules package was adopted by voice vote.
But even then, the Never Trump movement was not completely over. Had a majority of delegates from eight states supported Ted Cruz, or one of the other dormant campaigns of the GOP primary, a floor fight could have prolonged the Never Trump cause. Instead, the secretary of the convention awarded only seven state delegation majorities to Cruz -- Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Utah would have been the eighth state, but party rules awarded all of its delegates to Trump even after its delegation chairman reported a majority for Cruz.
While Trump already had a majority of delegates supportive of his candidacy, if Cruz’s name been placed into nomination, the Never Trump heart might have beat a few more times.
Instead, moments after the roll call ended, House Speaker Paul Ryan -- the convention chairman -- declared Donald J. Trump the Republican presidential nominee.