For a moment, after he underperformed his poll numbers in Iowa, it seemed like our Donald Trump nightmare was over. But then Trump sightly overperformed in New Hampshire, despite lacking a traditional get-out-the-vote effort.
And Trump's poll numbers in South Carolina and beyond are consistent, generally in the 30s, well ahead of his fractured opposition. If he can remain at that level after blaming George W. Bush for 9/11, then it's hard to see what would make his numbers decline.
Three years ago, the Republican Party issued an "autopsy" dissecting its 2012 defeat and charting a course for the future. Among its many recommendations was "a grassroots program to help grow the Republican share of the minority vote." The reports also concluded, "we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
That shrinkage now has a name: Donald Trump.
The New Hampshire exit poll and other reporting from South Carolina show that Trump's base is almost uniformly animated by raw hatred of Muslims. (Nearly half of the Trump's South Carolina supporters believe the practice of Islam should be outlawed.)
Trump's campaign of hate is an existential threat to the Republican Party. His nomination would almost surely lead to general election defections, if not to the Democratic nominee then to a third-party option. Not only would Republicans lose the White House, they would further wound an already damaged relationship the party has with communities of color.
For the Republican Party's own sake, he must be stopped. But how?
The easy way is to consolidate around a more mainstream conservative nominee: either Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Marco Rubio. A recent poll suggests Kasich is the strongest in the general election, but he'd have to really surprise in South Carolina to garner a rush of establishment endorsements and money. And enlisting his ex-president brother on the trail has yet to produce a poll bump for Jeb. Conventional wisdom is that after winning Gov. Nikki Haley's endorsement, Rubio has the leg up in South Carolina's "establishment" lane.
But if none of three has a breakout moment in South Carolina, consolidation may be impossible. At the same time, Ted Cruz's libertarian and evangelical backers – as well as Ben Carson's if he chooses to hang around – may be resistant to getting on the Trump bandwagon, preventing consolidation on the right as well.
And since most of the Republican primary states are not "winner-take-all" in terms of delegate allocation (long-time Republican Party lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg has an excellent delegate explainer here), that would result in no candidate securing a majority of delegates by the end of the primary season. Some consolidation may still have to occur; as the New York Times' Nate Cohn notes, candidates need to win at least 15 or 20 percent of a state vote to earn any delegates. Nevertheless, Trump may well end the race with a delegate plurality, but not a majority.
If so, the Republican Party should refuse to give him that majority. Hatred of Trump should be strong enough to forge the requisite unity among the non-Trump delegates, so long as the party is prepared to deal with the consequences.
The consequence will almost certainly be a third-party Trump candidacy, something which Republicans deeply fear.
But they shouldn't.
For one thing, blocking Trump at the mid-July convention would severely hamper his ability to get on state ballots as an independent. Most state filing deadlines for independent presidential candidates are in July and August. Some deadlines will have already passed. For the rest, he'd have little time to scrounge up the necessary signatures.
Of course, Trump could catch wind of such a plan before July and go third-party earlier. Even then, Republicans should show him the door.
As I wrote last August, Trump's ideologically incoherent mix of positions would allow him to pick off Democratic-leaning voters as well as Republican ones, much as Ross Perot drew evenly from both parties in 1992 and did not materially affect the final result.
(Few believed me when I made that argument six months ago, but Trump's policy zig-zags since then have bolstered the case.)
That would make for a wild convention, but as I have noted, the Democratic convention is also unlikely to be a staid, scripted affair.
The Republican Party could still lose in November, but if so, it would lose with its integrity intact. As George Will recently reminded, President William Taft's decision to run for re-election in 1912, instead of stepping aside for progressive Teddy Roosevelt at the convention, provoked a short-term party split, but ensured the Republican Party would be a conservative one for the next century.
Trump's non-ideological campaign of hate would produce a similar split, whether or not the GOP allows him to claim the nomination. Better to excommunicate him, cleanse the party of hate and purify conservatism, than to allow the party and its ideology to be indefinitely poisoned.