By a staggering coincidence, the logic behind the stop-Trump forces in the Republican Party abruptly shifted from pushing to narrow the competition (in order to concentrate the anti-Trump vote behind a single alternative) to tolerating, and even encouraging, a multi-candidate field immediately after last Tuesday—just at the point when it became clear that Ted Cruz, not Marco Rubio, was best positioned to be the only plausible non-Trump nominee. Over the past week, anti-Trump Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, have indulged in the comforting idea that Cruz, Rubio, and John Kasich would join together with a strategically savvy anti-Trump electorate to form an A-Team dedicated to defeating Trump on multiple fronts in multiple states, denying him a first-ballot delegate majority and allowing the convention to throw the nomination to Rubio, Romney, Paul Ryan, or some other hero of the Republican elite class.
This scheme, though not impossible, has many under-acknowledged deficiencies—not the least of which is that Cruz has no incentive to play along unless he is assured of getting the nomination himself. But last night's primary and caucus results in four states show how it can backfire even as an electoral strategy. The problem is that Rubio and Kasich are such weak candidates that they cannot reliably attract enough votes to place above most states' minimum threshold for winning delegates (usually 15 or 20 percent of the total popular vote in the state). For example, Rubio received 16 percent of the vote in Idaho, 9 percent in Michigan, and 5 percent in Mississippi—netting zero delegates in all three states. Kasich won 24 percent of the Michigan vote (and received 17 delegates there), but won just 9 percent of the Mississippi vote and 7 percent in Idaho.
The continued presence of Rubio and Kasich in the race thus drains anti-Trump votes away from Cruz without denying Trump significant numbers of delegates. There is no evidence that either Rubio or Kasich can actually defeat Trump in any upcoming states except their own home states of Florida and Ohio (and perhaps not even there). Normally, presidential candidates who had achieved either one victory (Rubio) or none (Kasich) over 23 state primaries and caucuses would not still be running active campaigns. But the lure of playing kingmaker (or, better yet, being crowned themselves) at a contested convention has prompted them to soldier on instead, encouraged by Romney and other members of the "Never Trump" brigade.
Despite a lot of hype (perhaps inspired by wishful thinking), it seems that Trump's losses over the weekend in Kansas and Maine (and narrower-than-expected victories in Kentucky and Louisiana) did not reflect a broader decline in his electoral support. A national poll released yesterday had also given heart to Trump's opponents by suggesting that the race was tightly bunched among the four remaining contenders, especially in the states that have not yet held Republican primaries. But the actual election results, both last night and previously, are impossible to reconcile with the results of the survey. Trump may have sufficiently limited appeal to be vulnerable to defeat in a one-on-one race, but he holds a clear and geographically broad advantage in the current four-candidate field, with no sign of imminent collapse.
The biggest change in the Republican race over the past two weeks has been a notable increase in popular support for Ted Cruz, who not only achieved his seventh state-level victory last night by winning the Idaho primary but also placed second to Trump in the three other states, finishing far ahead of Rubio everywhere and even farther ahead of Kasich everywhere but Michigan. But Cruz is unlikely to benefit from strong elite support, at least not soon enough to make much difference. (A Politico story today is headlined "GOP Establishment Creeps Toward Cruz," but the fact that 60 percent of the total number of Republican delegates will have been awarded by this time next week would seem to suggest that a faster means of locomotion might be more appropriate.)
The unacceptability of Cruz as a Trump alternative has done much to power Republican regulars' contested-convention daydream machine; note how David Brooks reassured his readers yesterday that "it's not too late" to stop Trump while simultaneously recommending that Cruz's advances be spurned as if he were a seedy barfly at last call. "Hit the pause button on the rush to Cruz," admonished Brooks, preferring "another path" that "doesn't leave you self-loathing in the morning"—to wit, the Romney A-Team strategy that has only seemed so far to benefit Trump.
If Trump wins the nomination and turns out to be such a cataclysmic disaster that he causes a down-ballot implosion and fatally damages the image of the Republican Party for years among Latinos and other racial minorities, future historians will wonder why Republican officials and thought leaders didn't rally around the strongest alternative candidate while there was still time. Brooks's column, and others like it, will be of immense scholarly value in explaining why.