WASHINGTON – The voters have spoken: Never Trump.
Wisconsin Republicans sent the nation a clear message Tuesday night in the drubbing they dealt the bilious billionaire. Republicans, and Americans, are better than Donald Trump.
The message goes well beyond the 13-point primary victory over Trump by Ted Cruz, himself a less-than-ideal candidate for Republicans. Not only did 65 percent of Republicans vote for somebody other than Trump, but four in 10 said they never would vote for him: They’ll vote for a third-party candidate, support Hillary Clinton or stay home in November if Trump is the nominee. Thirty-five percent of Republicans said they’d actually be scared about what Trump might do as president, and an additional 20 percent colored themselves concerned.
Wisconsin confirms what voters elsewhere have decided. Trump has won only 37 percent of Republican votes nationwide, and he hasn’t gotten an outright majority in a single contest, even as the field has shrunk. Take away some Southern states where Trump did particularly well and his share of the vote is even punier.
I’m not joining the parlor game of predicting whether Trump can get enough delegates to secure the nomination or can prevail at the convention. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. We already know for certain – and American allies around the world should recognize this, too – that the majority of Republican voters, like the vast majority of Americans, want nothing to do with Trump.
Six months ago, when Trump was lapping the field in public opinion polls, I argued that he would ultimately fail because “American voters are more sensible than many poll-obsessed journalists and commentators give them credit for. Trump … won’t prevail in the Republican primary because voters, in the end, tend to get it right” and “will never choose a candidate who expresses the bigotry and misogyny that Trump has.”
That prediction looked shaky for some time, but Trump’s recent tumble rewards a faith that the voters, in the long run, almost always get it right.
It has been a wild ride, as Trump has gone from impossible to inevitable and now to questionable. There were long periods of despair, as the country came closer than it has in modern times to embracing an authoritarian leader and as Trump released waves of bigotry. Other Republican candidates, putting ambition before country, waited too long to clear the field to give voters a consensus alternative to Trump.
Is Trump done? “Donald Trump will lose the Republican presidential nomination,” my colleague E.J. Dionne boldly forecasts. Another esteemed colleague, Eugene Robinson, looks at the delegate math and the polls and says “reports of Trump’s demise are surely premature.”
But, either way, it has become clear that Trump is ultimately doomed. True, he has a sizable lead in the upcoming New York primary, and he could secure the nomination without getting a majority of the popular vote. But Republican voters are correctly coming to understand that, even if he limps through the nominating process, his reckless candidacy will be a sure loser in the fall.
Wisconsin exit polls found that among Republicans whose top priority is a candidate who can win in November, seven in 10 picked Cruz and only two in 10 voted for Trump. Half of Cruz supporters and six in 10 John Kasich supporters acknowledged being “scared” of what Dangerous Donald would do in the White House. Half of Republican voters said Trump has run the most unfair campaign, while only three in 10 embraced Trump-style isolationism.
Cruz gained on Trump in Wisconsin among all types of Republican voters, even though fewer than 15 percent of Republicans said they were excited about Cruz. This is evidence that Cruz’s support is largely a Never Trump phenomenon.
No doubt many factors contributed to Trump’s unmasking: the violence at rallies, his talk of punishing women who have abortions, his campaign manager facing charges from an altercation with a female reporter, the cockamamie ideas Trump has offered to make Mexico pay for a border wall and to cut the debt in half.
But most likely the majority of Republicans were never willing to support him – and this is becoming obvious only now because they’re coalescing around Cruz. As Dionne put it, the “instinct that Americans would never choose as their president a clownish peddler of racial and religious stereotypes who made everything up as he went along was right from the start.”
It was touch-and-go for a while. But you’ll rarely lose money betting on the wisdom of the voters.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.