If you trust the experts — and if there’s anything we’ve learned in this election season, it’s that we should trust no one — the Donald’s crushing defeat in Wisconsin means he is now a long shot to gather the 1,237 delegate votes needed to claim the Republican nomination.
In other words, the chance of a contested convention — in which delegates, rather than, um, real people, determine the nominee — is now a real thing.
And as weird as that sounds, the story of the Republican race is, of course, far, far weirder than that.
Let’s start with Wisconsin, where Ted Cruz did crush Trump (in much the way that a streaking Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton in a must-win race for him), to see what we learned.
One thing, the GOP race is now down to three candidates: Trump, Cruz and the #neverTrumpists. Why John Kasich hangs around is a mystery. But there’s a bigger mystery: Who won and who lost Wisconsin? It will be a matter of debate until at least April 19 when the New York primary could help answer the question.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of evidence pointing in all directions.
I’d argue that Trump lost all on his own, which is important. Until Wisconsin, Trump has been basically Trump-proof. Whatever nasty, absurd thing he said only proved that his supporters love every nasty, absurd thing he says and can’t wait for the next piece of demagoguery to slip from his lips. But this was somehow different. The battery charge against his campaign manager, the punish-the-woman abortion gaffe, the spread-the-nukes editorial board interview, the “sniveling coward” attack on Heidi Cruz and on and on. Something happened. The most critical number in Wisconsin was not Cruz’s double-digit win margin, or the landslide delegate count, but the exit polling which showed that 38 percent of Republicans feared a Trump presidency and another 20 percent said they were concerned about a Trump presidency.
Still, you could argue that the #neverTrumpists won, although I remain skeptical. Certainly, they went all out, spending $2 million on attack ads. They not only had the GOP establishment at work, for what good that does in the GOP race, but they also had Gov. Scott Walker, who is apparently still popular among Wisconsin Republicans. Walker shepherded Cruz through the final stages of the primary race while the local talk-radio hosts were hammering Trump. I’m not sure what Walker’s angle is — maybe it’s the fact that, to beat Trump, the #neverTrumpists have to actually find a candidate, and you can bet it won’t be Ted Cruz. If Trump had won Wisconsin, Cruz was done, so give the #neverTrumpists that much. They’re still alive. And Walker finally gets a win in the presidential race.
And then there’s Cruz, who called this a “turning point” and a “rallying cry” and quoted John Kennedy – yep, just because — in calling for party unity. But it’s hard to see this as Cruz-mentum at work. This was an anti-Trump vote, and Cruz was the beneficiary. Or as Trump’s team put it, in a gracious post-game statement, that Lyin’ Ted is “worse than a puppet — he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.” Trump’s campaign also accused Cruz of conspiring with his own Super PACs, which would be illegal, of course. So, in their view, a crooked Trojan horse puppet won the race, and who could argue with that?
The dream of the #neverTrump movement is that Paul Ryan somehow becomes the candidate, on maybe, as Politico’s Mike Allen suggested, the fourth ballot, and order is restored. Well, there’s order and then there’s order.
Trump, meanwhile, has already said that if they take the nomination from him, there will be riots in the streets of Cleveland. He has also hinted again about a third-party run. Cruz had a similar take, saying that if someone other than Trump or himself won the nomination that Republican voters would “quite rightly revolt.” He didn’t say they’d riot, but he did say they probably wouldn’t vote.
Cruz is right to worry that the #neverTrump movement would turn into the #neverCruz movement if things ever got that far. And he’s also right to point out that a significant chunk of Trump and Cruz voters would never stand for it. This is where Republicans find themselves. They have two finalists they can’t stand, each of whom would be an electoral disaster, and to beat one, at this point, necessarily means helping the other to win.
But Cruz, who’s far behind Trump in the delegate count, needs momentum, and it’s hard to see where he gets it. If this is a game-changer, the race has to change in ways entirely unexpected. The man who laments Trump’s “New York values” goes up against him next in, yes, New York. The next week, the schedule moves to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Delaware, all of which should favor Trump. If Cruz is a non-factor the rest of the month, what does Wisconsin mean then?
Of course, if Trump continues to stumble and if everyone who’s not a Trump loyalist takes notice and if Cruz resists saying anything about “Pennsylvania values,” then Wisconsin could mean everything.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.