It was never supposed to come to this.
It was never supposed to come down to the number of delegates Candidate X accrued by winning two extra congressional districts in Missouri. It was never supposed to come to the vagaries of a convention committee that would have to weigh one pool of delegates against the other, never supposed to fall to the personal predilections of the hundreds of delegates themselves. It was never supposed to come to down to a guy who came from Columbia to the convention in Cleveland to vote for Donald Trump but can't wait to vote for Ted Cruz instead. It was never meant to all burn down.
The Republican Party's delegate-distribution system is messy by design, a very on-brand deference to the will of the states. Each has its own rules and own allocation procedures that seem as though they were intentionally crafted to share no components with those of anywhere else.
Win Florida, you get the delegates and Florida is done with you, farewell.
Win Alaska, and you get some delegates, if you hit a certain percentage -- but if you drop out, those delegates go to someone else even before the convention.
Win California and you get 13 delegates, plus three for each of the 53 congressional districts where you have the most votes.
And then states have to figure out who those delegates are and send them to Cleveland and make sure they know the rules, and on and on and on.
It's a process that was designed not for democracy but for acclamation. When a member of the Republican National Committee said this week that there was this lamentable sense that "the voters will decide the nomination," he wasn't being dense. Remember: It hasn't been all that long since the party adopted the charade that the voters were making the decision. Before that, the party just straight-up picked whoever it wanted.
Most of the point of all of the hand-waving that goes into the nomination, all the snowy trudges through Iowa and dull town halls in North Carolina isn't to convince voters that a candidate deserves their vote, it's to give the eventual nominee the patina of a mandate.
The way it normally works is that there's a go-to candidate (or maybe a couple of candidates) that the party likes, and that person eventually gets enough delegates to show that the base wants him, too. At which point the party, which has already helped position the eventual winner, begins to pile on.
There are so many levers that the party can pull that there was a book written about the powers behind the Potemkin primaries: "The Party Decides". So who cares if the delegate rules are a mess! The delegates are the stamp of approval, but the details are written by the party.
And that is how it works.
Normally. While there are always different factions within the party backing different horses, this year is different.
It has only really been since early February that the effort to keep Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination has consolidated. Until voters started voting, it seemed as though there was still a chance that the shimmering mirage in the desert, a Trump Collapse, might still happen. Then he stumbled in Iowa, brushed it off, and clobbered everyone in New Hampshire and South Carolina. There had been anti-Trump trumpeting before; in the wake of his success last month, it became a stampede.
Okay: Stampede-ish. But without much evidence of success. Millions spent against Trump before Tuesday, and the guy may have won every state but Ohio. He's got a big lead over Ted Cruz, and needs to win just more than half of the delegates that remain in order to clinch the nomination.
Until New Hampshire, really, there was still this idea that there could be an acclamation somehow, starring Little Marco Rubio. That's dead.
There's something of a push for Ted-Cruz-by-acclamation, but that sends its own shivers down a lot of Republican spines. So the next best thing, the thing endorsed by Mitt Romney on Friday? Keep Trump from clinching the nomination and then snatch it out of his grasp at the convention.
There's a big problem with that plan. This discussion of a brokered convention has been roiling for a few months, but really only kicked into high gear after Super Tuesday -- two weeks ago. There's almost no way that Trump will clinch the nomination before the last day of voting, if he even does then; he needs about three-quarters of the delegates between now and June 6 in order to clinch before the last contests.
Meaning that the effort to fight Trump will need to maintain its energy for at least another two-and-a-half months. Or, really, more. We are still more than four months away from the convention. So the question is: Can and will Trump opponents continue their push to bring the fight to the convention through April, May and June -- even as Trump likely keeps winning?
In the abstract, sure. MSNBC had a thorough look at how a fight at the convention would work; there are plans being made to massage the rules and count the delegates and so on. It's the guy who bought all the dumb survivalist junk that's sold on television and who, all of a sudden, is the only survivor of the apocalypse. A very urgent need arises to understand exactly what tools he has at his disposal.
But in a practical sense, there will be a lot of pressure over the next three, slow months to fall in line. There are lots of reasons for people to be worried about or skeptical of Trump, but there's also lots of incentive to avoid four months of vicious in-fighting that further pits the party's leaders against what is apparently at least a third (if not more) of the party's voting base. There's incentive for prominent Republicans to Put the Party First, as the saying goes, both from the standpoint that it gets them in the nominee's good graces and from the standpoint that it dampens the turmoil.
Each time Trump picks up another member of the establishment, he gains momentum moving forward. It weakens the argument that he's unacceptable and provides an additional disincentive to keep fighting him. It makes it easier for others to do the same thing. It's the snowball effect. And since Cruz has an even bigger delegate hole to fill, each new bit of support for Trump makes it more likely that the party will start looking at Cruz to give it up.
The best-case scenario for party leaders is that Trump loses the nomination in a delegate battle at the convention, a battle that would almost certainly cause some sort of upheaval -- perhaps even a violent one, as Trump himself has suggested it would be.
The worst-case scenario? Trump gets the nomination. Neither was the party's choice, so in that sense, Trump has already won -- and spending four months fighting him tooth-and-nail simply to anger a huge number of Republicans will get old fast.
It wasn't supposed to come to this. But here it is.
• 03/10/16: The unravelling of a political messiah
• 03/08/16: Hillary's bogus electability argument
• 03/07/16: Donald Trump has not brought 'millions and millions' of people to the Republican Party
• 03/02/16: Trump cites his $100,000-a-year golf resort as proof of his efforts on equality
• 02/23/16: Ted Cruz isn't running a dirty campaign, but that perception just cost a staffer his job
• 02/22/16: How Donald Trump won South Carolina
• 02/19/16: Trump says he'll win independents and New York state, but the numbers don't
• 02/19/16: Does Trump have a ground game? We probably still won't know after South Carolina
• 02/17/16: The Bush family reinvented itself to dominate politics --- which is now Jeb's problem
• 01/27/16: The dead people of America really don't want Hillary Clinton to be president
• 01/21/16: Sarah Palin's son, and the link between combat duty and veteran violence
• 01/18/16: The dark undercurrent for Hillary Clinton in Sunday's Dem debate
• 11/23/15: Just so you know: The government already has a list of Muslims in the U.S.