Conservatives seeking to derail Donald Trump are wondering: What if the contest weren't one-on-one — what if it became two-on-one? In other words, what if rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio teamed up and took on Trump together?
Enter the unity ticket: Rubio drops out of the race, and Cruz promises to make Rubio his running mate if Cruz becomes the GOP nominee. The pair then takes on Trump together, pooling supporters, donors, activists, and organizations.
It’s an out-there idea in an out-there, unpredictable election that proponents say would offer the establishment GOP a team to rally behind and give Trump a run for his money. Cruz, the argument goes, has earned the favor of the far-right conservative movement, while Rubio has the optimism, energy, and crossover appeal the GOP knows it needs to win a general election.
For those in the #NeverTrump movement, it’s hard not to see that in many of the states where Trump has won a plurality in the primaries, Cruz and Rubio’s votes combined make up a stronger plurality or a definitive majority.
“A unity ticket would be something that would be very difficult to overlook,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson told MSNBC. “You’re filling in a gap in the minds of a lot of conservatives.”
What’s more, it might be Rubio’s last shot at being on the ticket at all.
The Florida senator has set his sights on a big win in his home state, but the string of losses he suffered Tuesday night in Mississippi, Michigan, Idaho and Hawaii have left his campaign on life support. A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows Trump utterly destroying the senator in Florida – a loss that could end his presidential bid and possibly cripple his political career.
“The odds of Rubio winning Florida in seven days is not guaranteed. Momentum goes in the direction of winners and Marco Rubio is decidedly not a winner right now,” conservative pundit and RedState editor Erick Erickson wrote on Wednesday. “But he is awesome. And he will be an awesome former political star with no political future if the present trajectory continues.”
Erickson and fellow conservative pundit Glenn Beck, a Cruz surrogate, began championing the idea of a unity ticket last week. “This is doable, and this is absolutely unstoppable,” Beck declared.
It's an idea that seems likely to please the conservative movement: at CPAC, the right's largest annual confab, last weekend, pollsters emphasized that while just 26 percent of attendees had selected Trump as their first or second choice in the straw poll, 66 percent and 59 percent of the activist attendees selected Cruz and Rubio as their first or second choice, respectively.
While there are rules barring candidates from officially offering cabinet positions to others while running, strategists say they don’t see any barrier to two candidates joining together this way, because both will appear on the ballot.
FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon is so on board with the idea of a unity ticket that he’s asked his organization’s lawyers to try and vet the idea to ensure there's no legal barriers to Cruz and Rubio teaming up.
"People who support Ted Cruz generally can support Marco Rubio," he told MSNBC on Tuesday. "That’s why I keep coming back to it — this makes sense."
The time for such a unity ticket, Brandon said, is right now, before contests in the big winner-take-all-states make Trump's bid completely unstoppable.
“If Donald Trump wins like in a state like Ohio or state like Florida, the unity ticket would come up a day too short,” Brandon said. “If something’s going to happen these folks should probably get together sooner rather than later — preferably before March 15th.”
Advocates of a unity ticket argue that Rubio wouldn't be entirely settling: four or eight years as vice president would set him up well to run for president again down the line, just as George H.W. Bush did after losing the 1980 presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan. Bush served as Reagan's vice president for eight years, and won the presidency in 1988.
It’s that 1980 ticket – a last minute choice at the 1980 convention – that proponents of a unity ticket like to trumpet as proof, because, hey, it worked for Reagan.
Rubio dismissed the idea as "kind of House of Cards stuff" in an MSNBC town hall on Wednesday.
"I'm not looking to be anyone's vice president," he said.
But Cruz hinted last week he would be open to it.
“I think we are seeing discussions within the party about coming together. I think those discussions are happening among the candidates. I think those discussions are happening among the activists. I think those discussions are happening among the donors,” he said in Maine.
Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele said it was an interesting idea, but unlikely in practice.
"It's ego, it's pride," Steele said. "They'd rather go down fighting for the nomination than feeling like they settled." Steele added that there are plenty other qualified conservatives who would make a strong vice presidential choices.
Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former communications director turned MSNBC and NBC News political commentator, agreed. "You’re dealing with people who want to be president. It’s a whole different breed of people," he said.
But a few minutes later, Tyler called back. The idea was sounding more and more intriguing and more common sense the more he thought about it, he said.
“I really think they’d be in a strong position,” he said. “It would also allow the establishment to rally behind Cruz and vice versa with the conservatives who are irritated with Marco."