Katie Packer Gage, the executive director of Our Principles PAC, the leading conservative group targeting Trump, has now also concluded that fragmentation offers a better chance of stopping him than consolidation, if only because the latter is so unlikely. “Whatever [is] the best option might be irrelevant,” she says. “That might be the only option. There probably does have to be a multi-pronged effort to deny him the nomination.”
It would be tempting to call this a strategy of divide and conquer-except that would understate the position of weakness from which this discussion springs. “I would call it divide and survive,” Stevens says. “No one is going to be conquering.”
Among Republicans nervous about Trump, the talk of consolidation hasn’t stopped. But nothing about Tuesday’s results encouraged it. Instead it underscored the limits confronting each of the candidates chasing Trump, even as it demonstrated both the front-runner’s strengths and continuing challenges.
In most respects, Trump’s performance this week was dominant. Trump crossed the geographic and religious divide that stymied the past two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, by winning northern and border states with relatively fewer evangelicals that they carried (Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia) but also taking the heavily evangelical Southern states they lost (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee). And Trump continued to demonstrate enormous appeal for the party’s turbulent blue-collar wing, carrying at least 46 percent of non-college whites in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Massachusetts.
But in other ways, Trump’s performance hinted at lingering resistance. He exceeded 40 percent of the vote in just two states—Alabama and Massachusetts. In every state, his showing among whites with a four-year college degree or more lagged behind his support from whites without degrees; he’s carried most college-educated whites in only six of the 13 states with exit polls. And of course, his wins came even as concern over him among party leaders peaked following his refusal to instantly denounce the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist David Duke on CNN last weekend. “You talk to people on Capitol Hill and they are terrified,” the veteran Republican strategist Pete Wehner said.
The problem remains, though, that none of Trump’s rivals appear big enough to stop him alone. Cruz and Rubio continue to demonstrate mirror-image weaknesses. Cruz’s coalition is too narrow, while Rubio’s remains too shallow. Even as Trump has cracked Cruz’s evangelical foundation in several states, the Texan has not topped 18 percent support among voters who are not evangelicals anywhere except his home state. Rubio, meanwhile, has drawn support that is broad but thin. On Tuesday, Rubio won white college graduates in just three states and non-college whites in none. And by tilting right in his message, Rubio has left room for Kasich—whose support is narrowly restricted to party centrists—to peel away moderates outside the South.