When Donald Trump met the press as well as some supporters after the results from Michigan and Mississippi became clear, he launched into one of his trademark stream of consciousness rants that lasted an hour. Much of it was vintage Trump as he insulted his opponents and attempted to get even for past attacks on his business record. But it was also a brilliant piece of political marketing strategy. He held the cable news networks hostage for a full hour as they stayed on him for the entire hour rather than cutting away.
But the main takeaway from Trump on Tuesday night was not so much the clinic he put on showing how to suck the oxygen out of the political atmosphere. It was the way he is already seeking to pivot to the general election.
While no one would call Trump’s demeanor presidential, he was nevertheless using the moment to make his first steps toward unifying the Republican Party behind him. He spoke with justified pride of the record turnouts for Republican primaries and caucuses for which he takes full credit and then urged party leaders to take advantage of the new voters that he is bringing into the GOP field. He called for his followers to help re-elect congressional Republicans even as he acknowledged that many of them can’t stand him and gave credit to House Speaker Paul Ryan for reaching out to him (though reportedly the speaker made the same call to all of the candidates). In other words, Trump is starting to act as if he is already the presumptive nominee and a would-be president who is counting on having a Republican Congress to work with.
Is that premature?
Of course, it is. Trump is far from locking up the nomination. More than half of the delegates that will attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland have yet to be chosen. And Trump is only a third of the way toward winning the 1,237 needed to gain a majority. Ted Cruz continues to pile up delegates by possibly winning Idaho, coming in a surprising second behind Trump in Michigan as well as another second in Mississippi. Kasich showed enough life in Michigan to still have hope in Ohio next week. And while Marco Rubio had another bad night, he’s still hoping to do better in his home state of Florida next week and has the resources to make a stand there to save his candidacy.
But those hoping to stop Trump also need to face facts. Talk of Trump hitting his peak and now tailing off was probably incorrect. Moreover, though polls continue to show him losing in head-to-head matchups against both Cruz and Rubio, there doesn’t appear to be a path for either of them to get to that point. If Trump continues to win pluralities at this rate, doing so in states that allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis will change the dynamic of the race. Up until now, Trump’s first place showings haven’t given him an overwhelming lead in the delegate count. But starting on March 15 there will be fewer moral victories for finishing second.
There are two competing theories for how to stop Trump but, at this point, neither seems foolproof.
On the one hand, Rubio and Kasich could heed Cruz’s demands and let him have his one-on-one with Trump because he is the current runner-up. But as Trump pointed out, the odds will be against Cruz in the big Northern states that have yet to vote. Besides, neither Rubio nor Kasich can be expected to pull out when they have a better chance of beating Trump in their home states than Cruz does with only one week left.
The other theory has centered on all three staying in the race but cooperating with each other in order to allow each to win the states in which they have the best chance. That seems logical but Cruz isn’t buying it since he thinks the quicker he can get to a head-to-head matchup with Trump, the better off he’ll be. As a result, the chances of either Kasich or Rubio prevailing next week have been diminished.
Given the implacable opposition from much of the GOP and the conservative movement to Trump’s vulgar and authoritarian style, his lack of belief in conservative principles, protectionist policies that threaten to destroy the American economy, and appeals to prejudice that makes him a likely loser in a general election, the frontrunner has little chance to unify the party. Yet unless Trump’s three challengers start acting in concert to deny him victories in crucial states, they aren’t going to catch him. Nothing is going to convince the 35 to 40 percent of Republican primary voters to abandon a leader in whom they have blind faith. And barring a winnowing of the field or a degree of cooperation between the trio of non-Trumps, that slice of the electorate will be enough to win him the nomination.
Another evening of victories for the Donald means the clock is ticking on the stop Trump movement. We haven’t gotten close to midnight yet but time is running out on all the scenarios in which he can be stopped.