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How far will Republicans go to stop Trump?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at his primary election night event at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that there will possibly be "riots" at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland if he wins a plurality of delegates in the primaries but is not given the presidential nomination.

"I think you'd have riots," Trump told CNN the morning after primary victories in Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. He lost Ohio and final results in Missouri have not yet been certified.

"If you disenfranchise those people, and you say, 'I'm sorry, you're 100 votes short'...I think you'd have problems like you've never seen before," he said.

If neither Trump nor Sen. Ted Cruz can reach a 1,237-delegate majority--Ohio Governor John Kasich is still in the race, but it is mathematically impossible for him to clear that threshold at this point--he could easily be denied the nomination at the convention. Trump's supporters have warned such a move could divide the Republican Party.

"It's a decision for the party elites," Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an interview with CNN. "They can destroy the party or they can unite behind the front-runner."

Cruz has also cautioned the party about the risks of a contested convention.

"I think that would be an absolute disaster," he told CNN Wednesday. "I think the people would quite rightly revolt."

Proponents of the #NeverTrump movement within the party say he cannot be trusted to adhere to conservative principles or to stand by any of the promises he is making. They also point to polls that have consistently shown him performing worst against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in head-to-head match-ups.

Exit polls conducted Tuesday found that a majority of Republican primary voters not supporting Trump would be willing to consider a third party candidate if Trump and Clinton are the nominees. Trump's opponents have said they are not giving up, despite his big wins Tuesday.

Nancy Martorano Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, observed that Trump has not gotten a majority of votes in any primaries he has won, suggesting there is still a desire for an alternative among Republicans.

"A lot of the establishment wing might just stay home" in November rather than vote for Trump, said Tom Whalen, associate professor of social sciences as Boston University. That could could hurt Republicans in other races down the ballot and tip close contests to the Democrats.

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell acknowledged that there is "some resentment" between Trump and the party establishment that both sides will need to work together to overcome.

"There's a lot of people who don't know what to think at the current moment," he said. He cautioned against taking the exit poll data at face value, though. If Trump wins the nomination and proves his potential for the general election, some of the hesitation to support him will subside.

According to O'Connell, the #NeverTrump Republicans are a small but vocal faction of the party. If internal opposition to Trump ultimately costs the GOP the election, it could also allow a Democratic president to install a liberal majority on the Supreme Court that will last decades.

"The idea that you would cut off your nose to spite yourself seems a little childish to me," he said.

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist, is skeptical that the number of Republicans opposing Trump would be nearly as high as the exit polls showed, but he believes there will be a percentage. Given Trump's historically low favorability ratings among the general electorate, he may not be able to afford losing five to 10 percent of his own party.

"He will be the most upside-down candidate from an approval rating standpoint in the modern era," Mackowiak said.

How far the anti-Trump contingent is willing to go and how much the conflict will cost the party in the long run remains to be seen.

"There's no easy way for them now to extricate themselves from the Trump problem," Miller said.

If Trump does not have the support of 1,237 delegates, opponents can make an argument that he has not earned the nomination, but it may be difficult to get his backers who do not trust the party to listen.

"If Trump doesn't get the nomination, some of his supporters will take their toys and leave the sandbox," Miller said.

Trump frequently claims to be bringing millions of new voters into the Republican Party. The accuracy of that claim is debatable, but any voters who are coming to the party for him would be unlikely to stick around for a different nominee.

"There's going to have to be a strategy for how we keep Trump voters in the tent," Mackowiak said. It will require enormous political skill, since many Trump supporters are drawn to his unique personality.

"I think there's going to be substantial divisions in the party regardless of what happens," Miller said. Cruz and Trump have large, passionate followings that will be suspicious of anything that feels like the establishment rigging the race against them.

"The Republican Party is going to come out the other side further fractured and they're going to really have to figure out who they are, what they're going to represent," she said.

"It'll be a civil war," Whalen predicted.

Mackowiak believes shared opposition to Clinton will bring Republicans back together.

"I think that Hillary is going to help unify the party on our side," he said. "There's going to be such a focus on making sure she's not elected president, she's going to solve a lot of our problems for us."

It will not be easy, though, and not everyone will be on board, regardless of who the GOP nominee is.

"You're going to have some holdouts and they're going to be loud. We're not going to have a Kumbaya moment at the convention."

If Cruz can surpass or significantly close the gap with Trump at the ballot box in the remaining primaries, he likely has the best chance of being seen as a legitimate alternative by Trump voters.

Many Republicans say nominating Trump is far more damaging to the party's brand and its future than this infighting could possibly be, because they expect his impact to be felt beyond the White House.

"If Trump wins the nomination, he will go some distance toward undoing the influence of Reagan on the modern Republican Party-on policies like trade and immigration, in its commitment to limited government and cultural renewal, and in its concern for justice," said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Time magazine.

According to Miller, much of the steadfast opposition to Trump on the right boils down to a fear of losing.

"I think more of the concern is really about his ability to actually win in the general, even against Hillary Clinton, since up until this point he hasn't been really accountable for policy," she said.

Some experts say Republicans who assume Trump would be a disastrous general election candidate are misjudging his political skills. While he has trailed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in nearly every poll conducted since he entered the race, everything could change if he pivots to a more moderate tone and bombards Clinton with effective attacks in the fall.

O'Connell is dubious that voters will care much about matters of policy, and he believes Trump's positions on issues other than immigration are far more moderate than his rhetoric would suggest.

"He's been underestimated this entire campaign and I think they're underestimating his chances against Clinton," he said.

While Clinton could run a traditional Democratic campaign against someone like Cruz, Trump is "a unique political animal" with a mastery of the media and potential to put states in play that Democrats traditionally win.

Whether or not you agree with or believe Trump on issues like trade and entitlements, O'Connell said he has taken some ingenious political positions that will be difficult for Democrats to fight against.

"The problem for Trump is everyone's focused on his tone and rhetoric and not actually what he's standing for."

Trump has not demonstrated the discipline necessary to alter that tone, though, and Mackowiak described him as an "existential political threat" to the Republican Party if he cannot change course.

"There is huge, huge vulnerabilities and significant reason to worry," he said. "He's not really grown as a candidate...His substantive knowledge is frozen in time."

"There's not a lot to have confidence in...He continues to say stupid things."

He expects Democrats to "destroy" Trump with every scandal and controversy he has ever been involved in, making him look far worse than failed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Mackowiak fears Trump could lose more than 40 states in the general election if he continues to behave as he has and take Republican congressional seats and governorships down with him.

"It would be a disaster that would cost us a decade as a party," he said.

If Trump does find a way to reverse his negative ratings, stop offending minorities, independents, and women, and make a serious effort to unify and expand the Republican Party, defeating the Democratic nominee in November may ultimately be what matters most to many of his GOP critics.

"The establishment likes to win," O'Connell said. "So if Trump can demonstrate he can win, he's going to be getting a lot more supporters."

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