At long last, Donald Trump has shown the vulnerability that Republicans have been seeking for so long. Controversies over his words and ideas now trouble him like they never did before, everyone has realized how spectacularly unpopular he is with the general public, and just at the right time, he got beaten handily in Wisconsin by Ted Cruz. He has lost primaries before, but this one seems particularly wounding, as though it portends more hard times to come. Now he can be struck down, to fall with a thundering reverberation on the blood-soaked field of battle.
Or so Republicans hope. But the truth is, they may be facing the worst of all possible worlds: a terribly damaged Trump who nonetheless can't be stopped from winning their party's nomination.
Trump has certainly suffered in the last couple of weeks, as the horrifying farce that his candidacy represents has become more clear with each passing day. He could lose momentum and lose more primaries before the final contests in June. Then he could limp into the convention in Cleveland with fewer than the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright. But for all that, it may already be too late to stop him.
Why is that? The first reason is that Trump's lead in delegates is simply too big for Ted Cruz to overcome. Trump came into this week with 737 delegates to Cruz's 505, a lead that will get only somewhat smaller after Wisconsin's 42 are allocated (Cruz will get most of them, but Trump will probably pick up a few). Cruz will still need to win almost all of the remaining delegates to get past 1,237 himself, which is essentially impossible. Trump, on the other hand, needs to win around 60 percent of those that remain — difficult, but still possible.
And if he doesn't, what happens? Everyone arrives in Cleveland with Trump having won far more primaries, votes, and delegates than anyone else. The convention can hand the nomination to another candidate, but no matter who that person might be, it will be seen as a grave injustice by Trump's supporters, who are a clear plurality (if not quite a majority) of Republican voters.
And who would grasp that nomination? Ted Cruz, who came in second? That won't sit right. In the current establishment fantasy, a deadlocked convention is resolved when the attendees finally give the nomination to that fine young man, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
That would be a disaster of a different sort. It would validate everything that the angry voters who have dominated the GOP for the last seven years, and who have driven this primary race around every dangerous curve, have been saying all along. Just as they feared, the party bigwigs — or what Cruz likes to call "the Washington cartel" — came in at the end to steal the nomination away from the guy who got the most votes, and hand it to an insider who didn't even compete for the people's favor. Trump may or may not have been right when he said "I think you'd have riots" if that happened, but you can bet that Trump's voters — and probably Cruz's too — would be positively enraged. They might even be angry enough not to bother voting in November.
But in the meantime, they'll shout and scream and maybe even throw a few punches. And with the first contested convention in decades, every camera will be on the lookout for signs of chaos. The country will watch as the GOP tears itself to pieces, all before the Democrats hold an optimistic yet sedate convention at which Hillary Clinton assures the country that whatever they may not like about her, at least she isn't some kind of lunatic like the people who populate the other party.
Up until now, Republicans had a hard time imagining anything worse than Donald Trump becoming their party's nominee. But their minds might just be able to expand to envision an even more horrifying scenario. It's one in which the widely loathed Ted Cruz becomes the man on whom they pin their fading hopes, and yet they are not saved. It's one in which they are left with only a choice between three different varieties of defeat, and find themselves with no power to choose. And it's one in which Donald Trump grows more and more unpopular even before the general election begins — and then they wind up stuck with him anyway.