They assured each other he had no real shot of winning the presidency. They said he would be an embarrassment to the Republican Party and drag down the rest of the party with him, both in 2016 and for years to come.
To be sure, many arguments of the so-called “NeverTrump” movement in the Republican Party were based on mere principle. But some were more political pleas — that he was bad for the party, electorally speaking, and that Trump-inspired doom lay ahead.
It hasn’t happened — at least, it hadn’t as of the race’s final week. Trump appears to be within shouting distance of winning the presidency, and the Republican base is as united in voting for him (87 percent of them are behind him) as Democrats are in voting for Hillary Clinton (also 87 percent), according to Friday’s Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll.
In other words: It looks like the NeverTrumpers are leading a movement without a real base. And no matter what happens on Tuesday, they’ll have a mess to clean up.
If Trump wins, they’ll have run afoul of the new leader of the free world (not to mention their party) — a man who loves to hold a grudge. They will be faced with either trying to make amends or continuing to hold out, believing Trump will be a disaster as president — even as a plurality of the country will have given him their go-ahead.
And if Trump loses, as of this moment it looks like it could be narrow enough that they will be blamed — incessantly — for not getting behind their party’s nominee, allegedly costing him the presidency. It’s true that about 40-50 percent of the GOP is supporting Trump pretty half-heartedly — mostly just because he’s not Clinton — but that leaves the other half-plus that is very pro-Trump and liable to harbor plenty of hard feelings if it looks like he was this close to the presidency, and members of his own party kept him from the Oval Office.
In reality, it may not have truly mattered that some in the GOP establishment didn’t get behind Trump. As mentioned above, the GOP base is about as united as the Democratic base, and the 8 percent of Republican-leaning voters who are voting for Clinton is on-par with the 7 percent of Democratic-leaning voters who support Trump.
The mere fact that the NeverTrump movement has no real base is a testament to the fact that it probably isn’t costing Trump the presidency, even if he loses. Per enthusiasm numbers, the fact that folks like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and many members of the Bush family haven’t gotten on-board isn’t exactly preventing other Republicans for getting behind their nominee.
The NeverTrumpers continue to have a point that Trump is a uniquely flawed candidate. His unfavorable rating as a presidential nominee remains unparalleled in recorded history, and he’s got a shot at the presidency in large part because of rank partisanship and Clinton’s own personally-inflicted wounds. A more standard-issue Republican candidate would almost undoubtedly be doing better than Trump right now, given his historic unpopularity. And while GOP enthusiasm is on-par with Democrats, it’s lower than it usually is, which could be attributed to lack of love for Trump.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this is now a clearly winnable race for Trump if the chips fall the right way. No matter the circumstances, he’s got a real shot with just a few days left, and that’s something many NeverTrumpers wagered would never happen when they decided to cut bait and go it alone.
None of this is to say they made the wrong call — that’s a value judgment — or that they won’t eventually be vindicated. And that goes double if he actually does win the presidency. Part of being a NeverTrumper involved basically conceding the presidency and believing that was best for the party; Trump as president could prove them right.
But in the near-term, Trump’s ascendance in this race is about the worst thing that could have happened to those Republicans taking a stand against him. And the fact that many GOP elected officials who called for him to drop out after that “Access Hollywood” video are now supporting him speaks to the fact that they underestimated the backlash that results from running afoul of Trump supporters.
In other words: no matter how healthy the results, the GOP can still expect plenty of blood-letting.