The evolving narrative of "Trump can be beaten" is getting a little tired.
First, we were told that he'd lose when the field narrowed. Then that Marco Rubio could defeat him with sarcasm.
Next that his delegate totals could be chipped away by a coalition of anti-Trump forces working in separate states.
Strange alliances were formed. Lindsey Graham, who once joked that a jury of senators wouldn't convict a man for killing Ted Cruz, announced
that "Ted and I are in the same party, Donald Trump is an interloper."
The GOP is thus fighting to win its own primary. But while the prospect of a brokered convention remains a real one, Tuesday made it look less likely.
Cruz, for instance, entered Mississippi enjoying the governor's endorsement and signs of a late surge in the Louisiana primary next door, but the bounce failed to materialize. Exit polls
suggest that eight out of 10 voters described themselves as evangelical or born again.
Cruz won those who said religion determined their vote; Trump won those who put other factors first. Cruz swept those described as "very conservative"; Trump did better among the less ideological. Cruz has won the most contests against The Donald, but usually only in caucuses and with the support of a narrow band of philosophical fellow travelers. It's hard to see him translating that vote into a national bandwagon. Not impossible, but it would require other candidates dropping out.
In Michigan, Trump easily saw off a challenge by John Kasich, who had spent so much time campaigning in the state that he joked
: "I may have to start paying taxes" there. Trump benefited, much like Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primary, from disaffection toward free trade. His vote tended to be located among poorer, less educated or older voters.
Cruz, again, scooped the "very conservative" people; Trump took the "conservatives"; Kasich dominated the "moderates." And just as Cruz's base is too small to beat Trump single-handedly, so Kasich's hardly seems to extend beyond the North and Northeast. It's possible that he'll still win his home state of Ohio next week. Marco Rubio, by contrast, is surely in trouble down in Florida. The man who the GOP establishment most prefers as nominee placed fourth in both of Tuesday's crucial contests.
Trump, already in Florida, congratulated himself on his wins next to a table covered in Trump products that included Trump wine and Trump steaks. If he wins the White House, he'll probably be the first president to self-cater the inaugural.
Many pundits, myself included, struggle to understand why people are voting for this vulgar salesman. But the time has come to accept that they are. His achievement is great. Other conservative populists have run for the Republican nomination on an anti-free trade ticket; none has succeeded.
Neither Pat Buchanan in 1996 nor Rick Santorum in 2012, both of whom courted blue-collar voters and wore their faith on their sleeve, managed to win Michigan -- the state most associated with the pains of deindustrialization.
Yet Trump, who is not especially religious and is stinking rich, has managed to draw enough of the angry and dispossessed to his cause to win. One exit poll found that 53% of Michigan Republicans believe that free trade "takes away jobs."
This represents a crisis of faith not just in the GOP leadership but in its very orthodoxy. Growing numbers of conservatives do not take it as axiomatic that the free market works for them, war is a necessity or that big government is always evil.
Of course in the other race, large numbers of Democrats have signaled anger along similar lines. Working-class whites, left behind by globalization, are joining idealistic young students to support Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Perhaps the real significance of Tuesday is what it means for the winner-takes-all bonanza scheduled for March 15. Establishment hopes have been pinned on beating Trump in Ohio and Florida. Neither proposition now looks so sure.
If Trump wins both contests, or even just one, then the GOP has got to find some way of reconciling itself both to the man and the people who have voted for him. A conspiracy to steal the nomination from such a popular candidate will be interpreted as an anti-democratic coup.