The Beginning of the End for Donald Trump

Stuart Rothenberg April 7, 2016 · 9:10 AM EDT

For months, Donald Trump has led in polls, eventually piling up enough delegates to become a serious threat to win the Republican nomination in Cleveland in July. But now it appears that the wealthy businessman and reality television star’s candidacy is in jeopardy, the result of months of crude and childish comments, narcissistic behavior and contradictory policy pronouncements — as well as a more concerted effort by adversaries to deny him delegates.

No, Trump’s true believers certainly won’t desert him any more than he deserted Corey Lewandowski. They will continue to see Trump as the political messiah who has a clear-eyed view of the country’s problems and is uniquely prepared to solve them.

Those Trump supporters have bought into his view of government and into his message that only he stands with them. And they are absolutely certain that all of the criticism directed at him comes from the establishment, which is desperately trying to retain power, even if it means lying about him.

But that universe of Trump enthusiasts has not grown as it should if their candidate really was closing the deal on the Republican nomination. With his delegate lead and momentum, the widely disliked Ted Cruz as his major opponent, and the widely dismissed John Kasich largely irrelevant so far,  Trump should have started to consolidate his support in the GOP by now. But he has not.

He appears to have made little effort to understand government, learn from history or process the complexities of public policy. And he makes so many mistakes because he does not think about issues before pontificating about them. Each time he opens his mouth, he either says something controversial or demonstrates his lack of knowledge and amateurish approach to government.

In early January, I raised the question of whether electability would become an issue later in the campaign. I noted that it seemed to be an issue in 2004, but I cited voices on both side of the question.

Clearly, as Amy Walter noted recently, Trump’s weak showings in hypothetical ballot tests against Hillary Clinton so far have not shaken his supporters. They’re still with him.

But the real prospect of a Trump nomination — and what that would mean for the presidential race and for the fight for the Senate and House — has helped motivate some Republicans to rally around alternatives they otherwise would dismiss. And now, there is growing talk about ways in which Trump’s opponents might derail him in Cleveland.

Strategically, the problem for Trump is that the GOP field has finally shrunk to three people, with one candidate (Cruz) appealing to conservatives and the other (Kasich) to pragmatists. Cruz and Kasich aren’t directly in competition except for the fact that each is competing to be the “non-Trump” candidate. That has resulted, in Wisconsin, in the super PACs of the two candidates attacking each other.

Trump looks headed for a rather significant defeat in Wisconsin, which will create a two-week media buzz about Cruz’s momentum and Trump’s problems. Trump could well ratchet up his rhetoric after the Badger State primary, energizing his supporters but also risking further backlash from critics. [Editor's Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call the morning of the Wisconsin primary.]

GOP strategists like consultant Brad Todd are gaming out the race.

Todd sees a path for Trump to win the delegates he needs for the nomination on June 7, but the consultant believes it is more likely Trump will fall 100 to 150 delegates short of the total he needs to close the deal. That number is close enough to give Trump a chance to add the needed delegates before the Cleveland convention begins, but far enough away that it will be difficult for him to do so.

Todd notes that the most optimistic scenario for Trump assumes he will sweep all the delegates from New York and Connecticut, a result that would require him to hit the 50 percent threshold in both states. If he comes up short of that mark — and a defeat in Wisconsin would make that much more likely — Trump will lose considerable numbers of delegates in both states. And that could well be fatal for him.

If Trump’s prospects are fading, as I and many political operatives believe, then the GOP is certainly headed for a deadlocked convention.

Political veterans agree that Trump must win the Cleveland convention on the first ballot or face significant defections on the second. If he cannot, Cruz then would have an opportunity to get to 1,237 delegates and the nomination. But deadlocks on multiple ensuing ballots — especially if a potential Cruz-Kasich ticket couldn’t get the requisite number of delegates — would mean that the party would need to turn to someone else.

It is difficult to believe that, ultimately, delegates would turn to someone who sought the nomination but didn’t excite the party. That would include Kasich or Marco Rubio, each of whom accumulated only a couple of hundred delegates.  Given that, the only alternative would be a new name, someone widely liked in the party who had had burned few bridges among the party faithful.

No wonder we hear one Republican’s name more frequently: Paul Ryan.