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Yes, Trump could still lose

CNBC logo CNBC 2016-03-04 Ben White

Can Donald Trump be stopped?

That is the big question hanging over the GOP establishment and the 2016 presidential race. The answer is yes. But it's a long shot and almost certainly depends on denying Trump the Republican nomination at the GOP convention in July.

From a delegate math perspective, the effort to stop Trump likely depends on the Florida primary on March 15. If outside groups going up with negative ads on Trump, including the Wall Street-funded Our Principles PAC, can move the numbers in the Sunshine State and deliver a win to its home-state senator, Marco Rubio, there is a good chance Trump will fall short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright before the convention in Cleveland.

Because if Trump loses winner-take-all Florida, he could also lose winner-take-all Ohio to the state's governor, John Kasich. And as the race progresses, the terrain becomes somewhat less hospitable to Trump, with contests moving out of the South and into the Midwest, West and Northeast. Trump has shown the ability to win anywhere (see Massachusetts) but he has not faced the kind of sustained assault on the air he is about to face over his business record and past positions on abortion and gun rights and other issues key to GOP primary voters. He could face $10 million in negative ads in Florida alone over the next 10 days.

The conundrum for political operatives working to stop Trump is what they refer to as the "magnet problem." They are trying to use powerful magnets to drive voters away from Trump but at the moment they don't have a single magnet to draw in the voters leaving the front-runner. 

In Florida, they have Rubio. In Ohio, Kasich. In other states, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. At some point there has to be a single recipient of the anti-Trump vote. And that may not happen until the convention.

This problem is the reason some inside the party still believe that a consensus candidate will have to emerge who is not in the race now. House Speaker Paul Ryan and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney — who spent the latter part of this week savaging Trump — are the most oft-mentioned names to emerge at the convention.

The belief among those working in the #NeverTrump movement is that while some of the billionaire's supporters will certainly revolt if he goes into the convention with a plurality but not a majority of delegates and is denied the nomination, the damage in the fall will be much worse if he is the GOP standard-bearer. These people believe that Trump's awful numbers with black, Hispanic and female voters will make it all but impossible for him to beat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He could also drag down Republicans in down-ballot races and possibly cost the party its Senate majority.

And these people believe the narrative around the GOP race will be much different by July if Trump is trending down in states and delegates won rather than up. "If it's clear by summer that 60 percent or more of the Republican Party has rejected Trump as the nominee then giving the nomination to somewhat else at the convention will be much less difficult," one person working on efforts to stop Trump told me this week.

One thing working in the "stop Trump" movement's favor may be the early decision by the front-runner to try and switch into general election mode.

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Trump came under heavy fire in the debate Thursday night, essentially admitting that he told TheNew York Times in an off-the-record discussion that he wasn't as solid in his plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants as he has been on the campaign trail. He came under relentless pressure from the Fox News moderators over his claims that he can balance the budget while cutting taxes by massive amounts and not cutting entitlements.

He also took big hits for hiring immigrants over Americans at his Mar-a-Lago Club, making Trump-branded clothing outside the United States and over the lawsuit against his defunct "Trump University" by students who say they were left with piles of debt and nothing to show for it.

Trump also struggled to name any serious foreign policy advisors or explain how he would get the U.S. military to kill the families of terrorists. Trump for the first time talked about his willingness to show "flexibility" on immigration and other policies, an obvious nod to the general election. The question is whether that will turn off supporters who hail Trump as a fire-breathing truth teller. So far, bad debate performances haven't hurt Trump. This one probably won't either unless it's because his true believer followers feel like he is betraying them with moderation.

Trump remains the front-runner with the most obvious path to the GOP nomination. But if he starts losing the biggest states — and his supporters wobble on him — that front-runner status could easily evaporate. This thing isn't over.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money []. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.


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