Donald Trump's fact-free journey to the Republican nomination appears to have stalled last night in Wisconsin. Trump was expected to lose, but not quite this badly. Ted Cruz won by a margin of 13 points, resulting in a net delegate gain of 30. That's significant now that the establishment's singular goal is to prevent Trump from acquiring the magic 1,237 delegates. “Every delegate denied to Trump,” as The Washington Post's Dan Balz noted, “will be considered a small but important victory.”
At any rate, given the volatility on the Republican side, it's hard to know what to make of Wisconsin.
Here's what we do know: Trump is on the back end of a nightmarish two weeks. Last week was a blunder-filled debacle, which included an abortion gaffe and a campaign manager being charged with assaulting a reporter. Trump has made similar mistakes in the past, but rarely has he suffered any real political damage. And yet last week felt different, like something had changed. For the first time this cycle Trump appeared vulnerable, compromised.
If the Donald cruised to victory in Wisconsin or at least outperformed expectations, it would be easy to dismiss last week as a minor setback. But the resounding defeat last night suggests he may be in real trouble. Trump has dominated the race so far with a flimsy, media-centric strategy and a complete disregard for retail politics. If last night is any indication, it may be time for a reboot.
The warning signs haven't escaped the attention of Trump's top advisers either.
According to a report in Politico, there is growing disarray within Trump's campaign: “Since March, the campaign has been laying off field staff en masse around the country...Last month, the campaign lead off the leader of its data team, Matt Braynard, who did not train a successor. It elevated his No. 2, a data engineer with little prior high-level political strategy experience, and also shifted some of his team's duties to a 2015 college graduate whose last job was an internship with the consumer products company Colgate-Palmolive.”
The internal chaos has left Trump with an inexperienced “patchwork group” of hacks and part-timers. And several of his more seasoned operatives have left on their own accord. “I believe that Donald Trump has the backbone to fix this country,” said one former staffer, “but if changes are not made soon at the top I am fairly convinced that he will lose.”
Such disorder will, eventually, catch up to a candidate. You can't mount a viable campaign without a massive ground game and a savvy tech operation – Trump has neither. That he's still winning is itself a small miracle, a testament to “the power of the mass audience,” as Trump put it.
After Wisconsin, Trump's odd of reaching the 1,237-delegate threshold are greatly diminished. This is a serious problem for Trump, whose amateurish team is ill-prepared for the delegate fight ahead. The other candidates with veteran operatives working behind the scenes at the convention will have a comparative advantage when it comes time to haggle over rules and process. There is already, according to Politico, “mounting evidence that the Trump campaign's lack of organization is hurting him in the critical fight for delegates that is playing out at the state level. After winning Louisiana, Trump was surprised to learn that he failed to secure as many delegates there as Cruz.” As the Republican race becomes more granular, particularly at the state level, Trump will lose more battles like this.
Bottom line: What happened in Wisconsin was bad for Trump but not apocalyptic. Against the backdrop of his chaotic campaign, however, there are reasons to worry. As a contested convention becomes an inevitability, Trump's slapdash approach will prove more problematic. He may have an army of dolts at his back, but it will take much more than that to navigate the machinery of the Republican Party in Cleveland. If he's being out-hustled and out-organized by Ted Cruz in Wisconsin and Colorado and Louisiana, what are his chances at the convention this summer?