The assumption for months was that everything would fall into place. That there was no need to really dig in, that the outcome was obvious. And then, too late, it became clear that this optimism was unfounded. Or maybe not too late, but late enough in the process to mean that folks would have to scramble. And now everything is up in the air.
The paragraph above describes the Republican establishment's attitude about Donald Trump's candidacy, obviously. But it also describes Trump's push for the nomination itself.
From the moment he stepped onto that escalator on Trump Tower until about a month ago, Trump's assumption was that he could power his way to the nomination through sheer force of will. That the scene when he strolled through the Iowa State Fair, pulling people into a tight cluster around him as he moved through the crowd, would work at an electoral level as well. And, despite the skepticism of the establishment (and myself), it nearly did. With remarkably little effort beyond bopping around the country in his private jet, Trump vaulted into the lead and stayed there.
But that strategy has hit its limit, thanks mostly to Ted Cruz's dogged campaign efforts and the enormous luck of the Republican Party in having such a huge field. Ben Carson and Marco Rubio and Jeb! Bush (remember Jeb!?) didn't peel away too many delegates, but between them and Cruz and John Kasich, they've set aside a lot of delegates that might otherwise go to Trump. In 2012, the non-Mitt-Romney candidates ended with 530 delegates combined. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich have more than 800.
So now, just as the establishment had to scramble to try to cobble together an effort to put spike strips in Trump's path - an effort that may barely have been in time - Trump has to scramble to figure out how to put together the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch.
The problem, as we've noted before, is that his team has shown no ability to do so. Trump hired Paul Manafort to organize the effort, apparently usurping Corey Lewandowski's authority. But what's happening in Colorado this week shows why that is a trickier job than it might seem.
Colorado's delegate selection process is a messy one, thanks to a variety of causes. (FrontloadingHQ's Josh Putnam, whose site is an invaluable resource on the rules guiding the Republican contests, has a distinct air of exasperation as the Colorado process is explained.)
Our Ed O'Keefe outlined it. In short, the state's individual congressional districts and, on Saturday, the state as a whole, hold votes to pick delegates to attend July's national convention in Cleveland. Those delegates have either declared their intent to support a candidate or not, meaning that they are either bound to support a candidate or they aren't. It's bound delegates that Trump wants, because he needs to enter Cleveland with as close to a solid, unwavering majority as he can get. If he shows up with 1,100 bound delegates and 140 unbound ones, the Republican Party will do everything it can to get those 140 to change their minds. The convention isn't a Super Bowl, played on neutral ground. It's Stalingrad, and Trump doesn't want a siege.
On Thursday night, the 7th Congressional District in Colorado voted for its delegates. And for Trump, it was a complete mess.
Trump's campaign gave voters walking in a short slate of candidates that would support Trump.
Unfortunately, two of those names weren't actually on the ballot.
There were three Trump delegates on the ballot itself, in a contest that picked three convention attendees. It's just that the Trump slate from the Trump campaign didn't match the ballot. Why?
Trump CO director Patrick Davis explains why 2/3 of Trump delegate slate not on ballot. One didn't pay fee, other unsure but assume similar.
It's worth noting, though, that even having a printed slate was a step forward for Trump's camp. The campaign's state director told MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin that the campaign wasn't "sophisticated" enough to print slates at the two congressional districts that already voted (and gave their delegates to Cruz). That's the campaign's new state director, mind you.
Trump's new state director in Colorado was hired Tuesday, after the old director, Baker, was fired. Said Baker, to his knowledge, never lived here. In the end, delegates from Cruz's slate won the three slots - two of whom are unbound.
As Putnam of FrontloadingHQ wrote last month: "Colorado becomes a real delegate prize for the campaigns who are able to organize there. Those that gain an organizational advantage - and that is much more likely in a low turnout election without the incentive of a presidential preference vote - have a real opportunity to get something out of the Centennial state."
Trump - as has happened so often in the past - got out-organized.
It's unfair to pin this debacle on Manafort, the newly hired staffer in charge of fixing this problem. But it reinforces that Trump's team is playing catch-up. Organizing is not instant; you can't simply hire a new top guy in New York and immediately expect things in a congressional district in Colorado to change. You need to find people, you need to get up to speed on processes, you need to invest in resources - human and otherwise. None of those things happened in Colorado, and it's hard to imagine they'll be lined up before tomorrow.
To Trump's detriment, this is basically the only game in town. It will be very hard for him to hit the 1,237 marker simply by winning state contests (as we've illustrated before) - and, anyway, he's not doing any better at actually winning those contests.
The race is now a slog for delegates in the mud outside Stalingrad, and Trump's only now pulling on his boots.
• 04/04/16: In the year of Trump, a made-up news website run by an ex-convict finds success
• 03/30/16: Is Donald Trump a politician? An investigation
• 03/29/16: California could hand Donald Trump the GOP nomination --- and then doom him on election night
• 03/28/16: Let's uproot the pernicious, unproven claim that Ted Cruz attacked Donald Trump's wife
• 03/24/16: Why Donald Trump is poised to win the nomination and lose the general election, in one poll
• 03/23/16: The Brussels attacks and the increasing isolationism of Donald Trump
• 03/21/16: Will the GOP really keep trying to Stop Trump for four more months? It'll be tough
• 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.