A chief argument from the Republican Party’s anti-Trump movement is that polls show the real estate mogul can’t beat Hillary Clinton in November, but many of those same party leaders sang a different tune when Mitt Romney was in a similar position in 2012.
At the same point in the presidential campaigns four years ago, Mr. Romney led the GOP nomination race but trailed President Obama in nearly every poll, including by double-digit margins in several theoretical matchups — a fact that never derailed his quest for the nomination.
A Pew Research Center poll in March 2012 showed Mr. Obama crushing the former Massachusetts governor 54 percent to 42 percent.
Although Mr. Romney did in fact go on to lose in the November election, the Republican establishment wasn’t calling him “unelectable” as he closed in on the party’s nomination.
The apparent double standard has Donald Trump’s supporters openly questioning the motivation behind the party establishment’s fierce opposition to the billionaire businessman becoming the 2016 Republican standard-bearer.
“It’s because Donald Trump is not a member of the old boys’ network,” said Alfred Baldasaro, a Republican member of the New Hampshire House who serves as co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s veterans committee.
He said that Washington insiders feel threatened by Mr. Trump because he is an outsider who self-finances his campaign and can’t be bought.
“You’ve got the establishment that doesn’t want someone like Trump because their power goes away, their access,” he said. “They can’t control somebody that they didn’t put money into.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters were especially galled when Mr. Romney jumped in in early March to spearhead the anti-Trump effort, calling him a “phony and a fraud” and saying the country would be better off with Mrs. Clinton in the White House.
“Isn’t that awful?” said Sally Scott, 58, a Trump supporter in Willoughby, Ohio. “I am pretty sure I voted for Romney, and now you are going to badmouth Trump? That is horrible politics, horrible for the country. That is just something that has got to stop.”
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the Democratic Party experienced a similar internal struggle in 1976 when a relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, shot to the front of a 15-person primary race.
“National powers in the party organized an ABC movement — ‘Anybody But Carter,’” he recalled. “Gov. Jerry Brown of California was encouraged to jump in and did so. Hubert Humphrey made noises too.”
“Basically, the leaders of ABC said Carter was both too inexperienced and too conservative to be the Democratic nominee. It may also be true that many of them didn’t know Carter and he owed them nothing, so it was a pure power play,” said Mr. Sabato.
It was not only Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney who were losing theoretical general election matchups as they eyed their party’s nomination. Gallup polls showed Ronald Reagan behind President Carter 40 percent to 34 percent in March 1980; George H.W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis 53 percent to 38 percent in June 1988; Bill Clinton trailed President Bush 44 percent to 25 percent in March 1992; and Bob Dole lagged behind President Clinton 47 percent to 34 percent in March 1996.
History shows that some candidates turned it around and others didn’t.
A recent Fox News poll had Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner of the Democratic nomination, besting Mr. Trump by a 49 percent-to-38 percent margin.
Mr. Trump’s chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has become the unlikely champion of the anti-Trump crusade, topped Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent in the same poll.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich did the best in the survey, defeating Mrs. Clinton 51 percent to 40 percent.
Banking on the ‘Reagan effect’
Trump supporters insisted that not only is the establishment wrong for trying to block their candidate, but the polls are wrong because he is attracting new voters into the process. Mr. Baldasaro called it the “Ronald Reagan effect.”
“This election is totally different because you’ve got more and more Republicans coming out of the woodwork who haven’t voted in years, who walked away from the party but are coming back,” he said. “You have Democrats and independents coming out. Democrats changing over to Republican to vote for Trump. So the polls are not showing those numbers. That’s why Trump is doing great.”
Mr. Trump makes the same argument on the stump, urging the GOP leaders to rally behind him because he’s expanding the party for the first time in decades.
And Trump supporters note the Republican insiders made much the same arguments against Ronald Reagan when he was launching his conservative insurgent bid for the nomination in 1976 and 1980, also citing polls showing Reagan would lose badly in the general election.
Chuck Percy, a moderate Republican senator from Illinois, insisted to The New York Times in 1975 that “a Reagan nomination and the crushing defeat likely to follow could signal the beginning of the end of our party as an effective force in American life.”
Republican political strategist Douglas Heye, who has been a vocal proponent of the anti-Trump movement, rejected the notion that party insiders oppose Mr. Trump because he’s not a member of “the club.”
“He had a president and first lady attend his wedding. He brags about all the access he’s had for years with Republican and Democratic elected officials,” said Mr. Heye. “What’s the club?”
He said the problem with Mr. Trump is that he’s a weak candidate saddled with high unfavorability ratings that will only get worse when Democrats hit him with negative ads in the general election. Mr. Heye warns a Trump nomination will inflict lasting damage on the Republican Party by driving away women and minority voters with his inflammatory rhetoric.
Mr. Trump does have high unfavorability numbers, although so does Mrs. Clinton.
He also suffers high unfavorability numbers with women and extremely negative ratings from Hispanic voters, two groups that traditionally break for Democrats in presidential elections.
“More and more people are drawing a line in the sand and saying they cannot under any circumstances vote for Donald Trump. That’s a recipe for disaster,” said Mr. Heye, a former senior adviser to the Republican Central Committee.
Still, Mr. Trump’s supporters are fuming over the effort to derail their candidate and say that it’s GOP leaders who threaten to tear apart the party.
“I am hanging onto the Republican Party by a thread as it is, and I think if they steal this nomination from Trump, a lot of people will bolt,” said Jeff Crouere, a talk radio host in New Orleans who will be a Trump delegate at the Republican convention in July in Cleveland.
“I have not had a candidate I have been excited about since Ronald Reagan, and have been going to the polls time and time again for Republicans,” he said. “And now I am excited about Trump, and they are trying to steal the nomination from him.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.