GOP gets ready to go 'nuclear' over Trump

A lot of people are asking a very obvious question about Mitt Romney's big speech today blasting Donald Trump and warning all voters that he is simply not fit to be president.

They're asking why he did it. Because it seems like Romney's efforts will only help the Trump cause. Remember that Trump's entire allure to the voters seems to come from his open challenge to the establishment in both parties. And Romney's efforts will surely be seen as proof that the more and more unpopular establishment is frantic to stop him.

But that legitimate question ignores the fact that the said establishment is more than just frantic to stop Trump; it's becoming more and more willing to invoke an electoral nuclear option. And Romney's speech today could be part of laying the groundwork for such an option.

Mitt Romney and Donald Trump
Getty Images
Mitt Romney and Donald Trump

The strategy has three main stages:

  1. Lay a groundwork for major party donors and leaders to refuse to support Trump even if he wins a majority of the delegates.
  2. Get behind one of the remaining GOP candidates, and give him the financial support and enough political cover to run even as a third candidate in the November race.
  3. Play Electoral College math and hope that no one wins the required 270 electoral votes in November. That throws the election into the heavily GOP-controlled House and gives the presidency to the establishment-blessed Republican.

Sound crazy? Maybe, but if you don't think the Republican Party leaders aren't already on political DefCon 1 over Trump you're being naïve. And you're also being naïve if you think the above scenario, as crazy as it sounds, is beneath either party given an existential challenge like Trump. And it is an existential challenge because a Trump win doesn't just mean the established GOP will lose the White House again, it means the entire Republican Party will be ripped away from them probably for good.

Now let's get back to the electoral math, because it's the key to assessing whether this possible plan could actually work. History is always a good guide, and the last U.S. presidential election with three candidates who each won states in the general election occurred in 1968. That was when Richard Nixon won an extremely narrow election in the popular vote and held off Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Segregationist Democrat rebel candidate George Wallace in the electoral college.

But a closer look at the results state-by-state shows that Wallace came extremely close to throwing that election to the then-Democrat controlled House, where Humphrey would likely have been sent to the White House. Nixon took 301 electoral votes, Humphey had 191 and Wallace got 46. But Wallace only lost to Nixon by a hair in South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Wins in those states for Wallace would have reduced Nixon's electoral total to a non-clinching 269. And Wallace siphoned off enough votes from Nixon to give the eventual 37th president only a one percentage point victory in Missouri and a three percentage point win even in Nixon's home state of California. Nixon losing California alone would have thrown the election to the House, and Wallace almost pulled off the Golden State for Humphrey.

I realize the electorate has changed radically since 1968, but that election is instructive in teaching us just how tricky the electoral college math can be and how plausible it is for a lot of scenarios to produce a general election with no winner. And just because third party candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader didn't win any states, they surely helped the eventual winners of several states capture the winner-take-all electoral vote tallies in their respective elections.

I also realize that many people looking at this strategy will find it all too Machiavellian and distasteful in a way that would make even "House of Cards" President Frank Underwood blush. Wouldn't resorting to this kind of strategy, even if it succeeds, anger millions of Americans and sour the nation on the political process for generations to come? Perhaps it would, but the GOP is desperate now. And even if it weren't, it's long past time for all of us to recognize that no politician from either major party ever walks away from seizing office, especially when the path to do so is actually 100 percent legal.

The only time politicians willingly give up on power is about five seconds before it gets taken away from them unwillingly. And while an ugly fight for the presidency that goes to the House of Representatives might look bad, it can't possibly be worse than the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that the Republicans gleefully took to get George W. Bush into the White House 16 years ago.

Mitt Romney and other leading Republicans are seeing everything they've worked for in their political lives flash before their eyes. They're not going to let Donald Trump or some bad public relations stand in the way of saving it. So whether it's a strategy to throw the election to the House or another major plan like it, don't be surprised when we all see it unfolding before our eyes.

Commentary by Jake Novak, the supervising producer of "Power Lunch" and former supervising producer of "The Kudlow Report." Prior to joining CNBC, Novak co-created and oversaw the "Varney and Company" program on FOX Business Network along with anchor Stuart Varney. He also spent seven years at CNN, producing financial news programs including launching the successful "In the Money" show with anchor Jack Cafferty.

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