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How does the GOP presidential front-runner affect Montana races?

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If you want to ruin your reputation as a political columnist, start predicting things. Pretty much every pundit in the country has embarrassed himself at some point in the last nine months, mostly by predicting the wreck of Donald Trump. Only I have kept my name intact. I did it by sticking to my rule of only expressing opinions on things that have already happened, plus lowering reader expectations. It's been a good system so far and I'd be a fool to deviate from it.

But now is a boom time for fools. Despite his evident personality disorder and willingness to say anything but the truth, Trump seems poised to either secure a majority of delegates and clinch the Republican nomination or roll into June with a plurality and face a brokered convention. Either of those outcomes could significantly influence the fortunes of U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Montana gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, so we must prognosticate.

The problem is that we know very little—either about Trump's chances or Montanans' opinions. No less a soothsayer than Nate Silver has thrown up his hands on the question of whether Trump will clinch the nomination. Silver's Five-Thirty-Eight statistical analysis website predicts Trump will fall just short of the necessary delegates, but it's within the margin of error either way. And the impact of either outcome on Montana voters is difficult to assess, since the last reputable statewide poll of Republican preferences was conducted in December.

We'll start with a gimme: I predict Trump will either win the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the Republican nomination on the first ballot, or he won't. If he doesn't, delegates will become unbound. That means after the first vote, they can throw their support behind whatever candidate they please—not necessarily the ones assigned to them by their respective state primaries.

Trump will almost certainly lose delegates in this scenario. It would probably cost him the nomination. The kind of people who become delegates to the Republican National Convention love their party and they do not want to see it run a crazed reality TV star in the general. Trump has predicted "riots" if he doesn't leave the convention with the nomination. That's the kind of remark that makes the old guard of the GOP hate him. In a brokered convention, Trump will almost certainly be denied.

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That would probably be good for the country, but it would be a disaster for the party. He is the most popular candidate in their field, although he is also the most unpopular. And he has yet to demonstrate any particular loyalty to the GOP. If Trump is denied the nomination, he might run as an independent. Or his supporters—as many as 40 percent of registered Republicans nationwide—might simply stay home on election night.

That last outcome—Trump does not win the Republican nomination and does not appear on the ballot in November—would be a catastrophe for both Gianforte and Commander Zinke. Each faces a viable Democratic opponent. As the incumbent, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is strong. Zinke's opponent, Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau, is much less threatening—unless something crazy happens, like 40 percent of Republican voters staying home.

So a Trump-free ticket bodes ill for every name further down. But a ticket with Trump at the top is nearly as bad. As the GOP candidate for president, he is likely to reduce turnout among moderate, business-friendly Republicans—exactly the voters to whom Gianforte has pitched his appeal. And while his anti-regulation, pro-growth agenda might appeal to the same frustrated, working-class whites who make up Trump's base, Trump's main issue—immigration—consistently polls as least important to Montana voters. Gianforte stands to lose more from a Trump ticket than he has to gain.

Commander Zinke's chances on the same ballot as Trump look somewhat better. In the contest between a Navy SEAL and an out lesbian, Trump voters will probably see an easy choice. But the question of how many longtime Republican voters will choose not to vote still looms. If Montana proves similar to Wyoming, where Trump got only 7 percent of the vote in the primary, his name will have a dampening effect.

So little is certain about the next seven months of Republican politics. Yet the outcomes tend to converge on disaster for candidates further down the ticket. Whether he wins the nomination or not, Trump has damaged the Republican Party in a way that looks irreparable during this election cycle. The clear front-runner for the GOP nomination has a 61 percent disapproval rating nationwide. That is not the foundation on which party success is built.

Incidentally, Hillary Clinton polls at 53 percent unfavorable nationwide. So maybe this election is bad for everybody. Whatever happens between now and November, most of us will have to choose between options we don't like.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and holding his nose at combatblog.net.

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