For months now, the leaders of the Republican Party have been ambling through a fugue of denial about the fact that Donald Trump is winning the race for their party's presidential nomination.
They know that nominating him would be disastrous, but they are so confident it won't happen that they can't seem to be bothered to do anything about it.
Their most recent bout of wishful thinking concerned the Iowa caucuses, where they managed to convince themselves that Trump finishing second and Marco Rubio finishing third represented a huge triumph for the forces of the establishment. But after tonight's results in New Hampshire, the truth remains the same: Trump is winning.
I don't say that Trump will win. He might not! But for him to lose, someone actually has to beat him. There is no automatic process through which he deflates, and no winnowing magic through which he can be defeated without someone actually taking the trouble to defeat him.
The schedule is about to get more Trump-friendly
For all that mainstream Republicans hyped up Trump's narrow loss in Iowa, in reality his performance there was impressive. Everyone knows retail politics matters more in the early primary states and organization matters more in the caucus states. Trump, who doesn't do much retail politics or any ground game should have gotten crushed in Iowa. Instead, he finished a strong second. Shift to New Hampshire where organization matters a bit less, and he got first.
Up next is South Carolina, where he has a 16-point lead and where there's not enough time for retail politicking to make a big difference. Barring something dramatic, he is going to win.
On February 23, Nevada holds Republican caucuses. That's the GOP's best chance to deal Trump another blow before the election storms forward to the March 1 contests in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. At that point, you're simply talking about too much geography being in play for retail politics to make a big difference. Trump's mastery of broadcast media will be a huge asset for him.
And while several of those states are holding caucuses where his lack of organization could be a hindrance, nobody in the Republican field really has a ground presence in places like Minnesota and Colorado. What's more, the candidate whose operation is best suited to caucus wins is Ted Cruz, who the Republican establishment has decided is just as unacceptable — if not more so — than Trump.
If Trump comes out of March 1 with a big lead, it will of course still be possible to stop him but it starts to get very hard. Trump is weakest on the West Coast, but fortunately for him the GOP schedule skews hard against the West, with Oregon on May 17, Washington on May 24, and California going last, on June 7.
Winnowing alone won't work
The establishment's consistent dream, ever since Trump rocketed into a national polling lead, has been that consolidation of the "establishment lane" candidates will lead eventually some someone from the Rubio/Bush/Christie/Kasich foursome taking a strong lead. The problem for the establishment is that New Hampshire is the only state where this would have actually worked. Had supporters of those four men all united behind a single candidate, he would have won.
But they didn't.
And in national polling averages, winnowing alone doesn't work. If you combine Rubio's 17.8 percent with Bush's 4.3 percent, Kasich's 4 percent, and Christie's 2.5 percent you get a grand total of 28.5, which is still slightly behind Trump.
But worse than that, there's little reason to believe that actual voters endorse the "lanes" schema that political journalists have embraced. Voters who like Christie's tough-talking persona may be drawn to Trump as the next best thing. Kasich and Trump stand out as the two candidates in the field who are a bit soft on the welfare state. Rubio and Trump are running on similar themes of rescuing the United States from Obama-induced decline. And then, of course, national polling still shows a healthy 10 percent of Republicans backing outsider figures Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who may naturally gravitate toward Trump.
Trump could lose, but how?
Absolutely none of this in any way makes Trump inevitable. He fell a lot in national polls in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, showing that the race remains fluid and momentum really can shift very rapidly.
The problem for Republicans is that the momentum is about to shift in the other direction. A win in New Hampshire will create a burst of positive press coverage, while the establishment candidates remain in total disarray.
So far, the establishment has been trying to beat Trump with wishful thinking. It keeps not working. Trump could self-destruct or drop out for no reason at all. He could be abducted by aliens. Who knows? But merely hoping for those things is not a plan. The plain reality is that right now he is on course to win the nomination unless some concerted effort is made to stop him. And so far, there's no sign that any such effort is underway. Republican leaders not actively involved in the campaign simply seem baffled and stunned into indifference. And they're running out of time.