As Wisconsin voters head to the polls today, the political world's conventional wisdom is once again tipping against Donald Trump.
Many savvy observers have moved from feeling that Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee to once again harboring grave doubts about whether he can actually pull it off. We're even suddenly seeing trial balloons floated for Paul Ryan as the nominee.
But are these political elites overreacting to recent news items and falling into old patterns of underestimating both Trump's resilience and the importance of finishing with a delegate plurality?
You can see the recent change play out at Predictwise, which aggregates odds from betting markets and is a pretty good indicator of where the conventional wisdom is. Over the past week and a half, Predictwise finds that Trump's estimated chances of getting the nomination have plummeted from about 78 percent to 53 percent — the lowest they've been since mid-February:
Now, we should note that Trump is still viewed as the favorite to win the nomination, and that during this campaign, the conventional wisdom of political elites has often been utterly worthless.
But there has been a real change in sentiment lately — partly because of recent Trump-related controversies that have dominated headlines, and partly because of the cold, hard realities of the delegate math.
The big question, though, is just how willing the delegates would actually be to nominate a second-place finisher or someone who didn't run at all instead of the candidate who got a plurality of delegates.
Even for Trump, his campaign's past two weeks have been bizarre
After a period in which Trump deliberately tried to act presidential and said he wanted to unite the party, his campaign has gone off the rails. Even for a campaign that has long courted controversy and flouted norms of political discourse, Trump's past two weeks have been ridiculously over the top.
- First there was "Wifegate," an embarrassing and regressive exchange between Trump and Cruz in which, among other things, Trump retweeted a supporter mocking Heidi Cruz's appearance.
- In the midst of this, Trump's campaign manager was charged with battery for assaulting reporter Michelle Fields — a controversy that, again, the Trump campaign repeatedly and needlessly escalated with lies and insults.
- Shortly afterward, Trump bungled a response to a question about abortion by saying that women who have abortions should face "some form of punishment," infuriating pro-choicers and even embarrassing pro-lifers before he eventually walked his statement back.
- And there's been increased attention on the fact that Trump is losing general election polls badly to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — raising fears of a landslide election in which Republicans lose not only the Senate but even the House.
These controversies don't actually seem likely to dent Trump's support among GOP voters who already back him, because apparently nothing will at this point. But they will likely make his general election prospects even dimmer than they already are.
More importantly, they could harden party resistance to Trump, cementing the perception that he's both unelectable and unfit for office, and making it more likely the delegates would resort to extraordinary measures to defeat him at a contested convention, should one ensue.
The cold, hard delegate math
As these controversies have unfolded, polling has suggested that Trump is likely to lose Wisconsin's primary today and pick up only a few delegates at most.
If that transpires, it will make the billionaire's path to a majority of 1,237 delegates — already fraught — even more challenging.
Sure, he'd need wins (sometimes big wins) in Northeastern states like New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and New Jersey. But even those victories wouldn't be enough. He'd likely have to win the Indiana primary on May 3 too, and pick up a good share of delegates in proportional states like Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico.
Most importantly of all, there's the biggest delegate prize — California, which votes on June 7 and will send 172 delegates to the convention. Since the vast majority of the state's delegates are allotted winner-take-all in its 53 congressional districts (three per district), Trump would likely need to win consistently across this very diverse state to put him over the top.
All that is doable. But it's difficult, and there's little room for error. It is very plausible that Trump will end up falling short of the 1,237 delegates he needs — perhaps even quite a bit short.
Two Trump challenges — and one Trump advantage — in an open convention
So the question becomes: What happens if Trump misses his majority?
Theoretically, it's possible that he could win over some uncommitted delegates, put himself over the top, and avoid a second round of voting.
But he faces a twofold problem here. First, his recent erratic and controversial behavior, combined with his general election polling, could well alienate swing delegates. Second, his campaign has been incompetent at the delegate selection game. For instance, North Dakota chose its 25 uncommitted delegates at a state convention this weekend, and by all accounts Ted Cruz did a much better job at electing his supporters to those slots than Trump did.
If convention balloting does proceed to a second round, it could be even worse for Trump. The vast majority of the delegates would be immediately freed to make up their own minds. And recent reporting from Politico suggests that many of the delegates "bound" to back Trump on the first ballot could in fact truly support Cruz, either helping to elect him on the second ballot or voting in his interest on earlier rules fights.
In Trump's favor, though, is one big thing — he'd almost surely be the plurality first-place winner in delegates heading into the convention. So it would be rather controversial, considering modern democratic norms, for the delegates to instead nominate someone who did worse than him (Ted Cruz) or who didn't even run (Paul Ryan). It would certainly result in a massive backlash, as Trump himself has said or perhaps threatened.
Overall, your estimation of Trump's chances at this point should probably depend on just how beholden to the first-place finisher you think the delegates will feel — or, alternatively, how eager they'll be for a fight that could tear the Republican Party apart.