Skeptical Republicans were coming around. Donald Trump was gaining momentum and the polls were tightening.
Then he had a train wreck of a debate.
He got put on his heels by Hillary Clinton early, gave a confusing answer on his years-long “birther” crusade, had trouble detailing any salient policies, and even doubled down on calling Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig.”
His performance comes after a considerable thaw in the GOP toward the golden-haired candidate. Many anti-Trump forces who had sworn an oath to oppose him as the Republican nominee because he was either a) dangerous b) valueless or c) both—had simply given up opposing him.
#NeverTrump was quickly becoming #WhyFightIt.
Surveys—both national and in key battleground states—showed he had a chance to win the election, and even die-hard critics were beginning to endorse. In mid-August, a Gallup poll showed that just 46 percent of Republicans were pleased with their nominee. By this week, Trump had locked down the support of 90 percent of self-identified Republicans, a new Bloomberg poll showed.
Public figures like conservative talk radio host Mark Levin endorsed Trump as a lesser evil than Clinton; and last Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz ended his brief foray into #NeverTrump territory by endorsing his party’s nominee.
Just last Friday, Cruz, took flack from his own most devoted followers for supporting a man who he has called a “pathological liar” and “sniveling coward.” Four days later, following the debates, he disappeared down a senator-only elevator while declining to take questions.
He wasn’t alone because after Monday night’s debate showing, they may be thinking twice.
On Capitol Hill, the full spectrum of Republican lawmakers were mum on their party’s de facto leader. Everyone from Sen. John McCain (whose POW status Trump insulted) to Sen. Bob Corker (who was considered for VP but withdrew) to Cruz refused to talk about Donald Trump. All three have endorsed him for president.
“It was interesting,” the normally-talkative McCain told The Daily Beast.
McCain would know. He endured three debates with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, giving him a special insight into the process.
But if he had any further thoughts, he wasn’t willing to elaborate.
When pressed on what he found interesting, the senator would only repeat tersely, “it was interesting,” before rushing onto the Senate floor, where reporters are not allowed.
Corker had tried to be helpful to Trump earlier on in the campaign but has been periodically critical of his most controversial statements. Following the showdown at Hofstra University, the senator tried his best to disentangle himself from the question.
“I’m not going to give—,” he started, before returning to another questioner who had asked about pending legislation. Pressed on it again, Corker said he didn’t want to “referee” the presidential debate.
Levin, the conservative talk radio personality, is one of the most influential radio hosts in America. His millions of listeners make up a solid chunk of America’s conservative base. He reluctantly endorsed Trump, but on Monday night griped on social media that neither his candidate nor Clinton did well.
Even Trump’s most high-profile supporters were damning with faint praise. Polling by Trump’s favored news outlet, Breitbart, showed that the public thought Clinton had won the debate.
Even his paid staff had a weak response to his performance.
“I’d give them both a satisfactory [grade],” Kellyanne Conway told Fox News after the debate. She then spent the next day asserting that Trump doesn’t believe climate change is man-made, contrary to scientific evidence.
All of this leaves the dwindling #NeverTrump movement as a dying breed of conservative, holding out against him for purely moral objections. People like Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard, who summed up his thoughts on Trump’s debate performance via Twitter.
“Sophisticated types who’ve signed on w/ Trump are today grappling w/ the horrifying realization they’ve fallen in behind a con man & loser,” Kristol wrote.