1. The time to destroy Trump is running out
I have long believed there was simply no way Donald Trump could win the GOP nomination. Now I'm not so sure. Trump has shown he can mobilize enough voters to win primaries in states as diverse as New Hampshire and South Carolina. If he keeps it up, Trump will win enough primaries to win a majority of delegates and be the nominee of the Republican Party — no matter how much true conservatives hope otherwise.
What's more, the anti-Trump case has been that Trump has a ceiling of support, and once the non-Trump field consolidates, Trump will lose. Maybe! But maybe not. We were told that Trump's voters were a very specific group: down-on-their-luck white working-class voters, who see themselves as "moderates" and "independents," who are for big government and against big business, not very religious, and relatively indifferent to issues like abortion, but who dislike the cultural left. But in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump won self-described moderates and self-described conservatives, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, men and women — everyone. Who's to say that when the Jeb Bushes of the world drop out, Trump won't get some of their votes?
What's more, bandwagon effects are real. According to a recent poll, more and more Republican voters "can see themselves" voting for Trump.
And the race "narrowing" is not some iron law of nature. Right now, most pundits agree that Ben Carson and John Kasich don't have a plausible path to the nomination. But they haven't dropped out. Politicians have big egos. They might gamble everything on a freak collapse of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Maybe they can run their campaigns on fumes for awhile. In winner-take-all primaries, a spoiler at 5 percent can deliver Trump the nomination.
2. Ted Cruz is in trouble
As Commentary magazine's Jonathan Tobin points out, the biggest loser of the South Carolina primary was Cruz. South Carolina was a state made for Cruz, right? Overwhelmingly Southern, white, and evangelical. Cruz did everything right: He's got the far-right bona fides, and he is probably running the slickest campaign in the field in terms of execution and turnout. And yet, he finished third.
People talk about an "establishment lane" and a "base lane" and now a "Trump lane" of working-class whites. But after South Carolina, it looks like Trump is doing well enough in both the "Trump lane" and the "evangelical lane" to drive the other cars off the road — particularly Ted Cruz's.
3. The establishment has no clothes
The problem isn't that the famed GOP "establishment" is trying to stop Trump and failing. The problem is that it's not even trying. As John Podhoretz argues, it seems as if there isn't even a Republican establishment anymore. There are certainly constituencies that are establishment-like, in the sense that they have money and influence and prize technocratic management and prudence over ideological purity. But these are just one constituency among many, not an "establishment" in the traditional sense. The biggest GOP donors, the Koch brothers, are also the most prominent supporters of the Tea Party.
The establishment is no more. This is both good and bad. I believe the Tea Party has been one of the healthiest developments in the history of the GOP. On the other hand, my small-c conservative instincts make me think that if a party doesn't have something like an establishment, there is nobody in the smoke-filled backroom that can twist arms so that Kasich drops out and Jeb's donors all line up behind Rubio. Instead, for better or for worse, there's just chaos.
4. Rubio can win this thing
Rubio's disastrous New Hampshire debate performance might have destroyed many lesser candidates. But the Florida senator bounced back to finish second in South Carolina. He's now outlived Scott Walker (remember him, and how the nomination was his to lose?), Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and many others. Since New Hampshire, he's allowed himself to be slightly less scripted and more spontaneous, which has made him a better candidate. While there is no establishment, there is certainly a donor class, and many will line up behind Rubio. Even in arch-conservative South Carolina, Rubio's "I'm electable" pitch was successful.
The window to beat Trump is narrowing, but it's still open. It's still the case that many more GOP voters dislike Trump than like him, and it's still the case that the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote is bigger than the others. Rubio has a path to the nomination. A perilous path, but a path.