“This has been an amazing evening,” Donald Trump said. “This is like the Academy Awards!”
He had reason to feel like a lucky starlet. By 9:40 p.m. on Super Tuesday, when Trump walked out onstage, seven of 11 contests had been called—and he had won five of them, securing 139 delegates.
By the time he left the stage, he’d won Alabama with 45 percent to Ted Cruz’s 21; Georgia 40 percent to Cruz’s 24; Massachusetts 49 percent to Marco Rubio’s 18; Tennessee 41 percent to Cruz’s 24; and Virginia 35 percent to Rubio’s 32. He’d lost only in Texas and Oklahoma, where Cruz prevailed by margins of 13 and 6, respectively. (Later in the evening, Minnesota would be called for Rubio. Trump finished there a distant third.)
The GOP frontrunner was standing in front of 10 American flags in the gilded White and Gold Ballroom in his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, a modest crystal chandelier the size of a Prius over his head.
Were it not for the flags and the lectern with the sign reading “TRUMP” and the red, white, and blue lights, the room would fit right into the Palace of Versailles, which is why memberships in the club cost upward of $100,000 a year. The press and the cameras got in for free on Tuesday night, however.
“This has been an amazing period in my life,” Trump said, “It’s been amazing for me even from an educational standpoint, and I think, honestly, we’ve done something that people never thought could be done, and I’m very proud.”
He added, “There’s nobody—nobody!—who is going to beat us.”
This moment was inconceivable to everyone but Trump on June 16 last year, when he announced his candidacy from the similarly opulent lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan. A reality TV star and frequently bankrupt real estate tycoon with a nativist political philosophy did not seem like the ideal Republican candidate for 2016, or even for this century. But in the ensuing 8½ months, Trump has repeatedly defied expectations. He has led the polls, consistently, since July. He has won, as of this writing, nine out of 12 primaries and caucuses. He’s winning so much that “we’re getting tired of winning,” as he likes to say.
By Trump’s side Tuesday night was Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who endorsed Trump on Friday after ending his own presidential campaign two weeks prior. The endorsement from Christie, who was once thought to be a member of the so-called establishment, set in motion a string of endorsements from the sort of legitimate conservatives who seemed beyond Trump’s reach just a few short months ago: Jeff Sessions, a sitting senator, and Tom Marino, a congressman.
Trump is now, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote, “no longer a pariah.” And to condemn him now means also condemning the 49 percent of Republicans who support his candidacy.
But what about the other 51 percent?
The effort to stop Trump has been a yuge disaster thus far—in that it never really got off the ground. It’s not that anti-Trump forces don’t exist, but they have not been motivated or organized enough to come together to defeat him.
Candidates who tried to take him down—Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, and, for a few weeks, even Christie—were taken down instead.
The coalition of donors and super political action committees that was supposed to materialize to beat him never did. In the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, Rubio and Cruz started in on him, accusing him—accurately—of having ties to the Mafia and—speculatively—of having a small penis.
Super Tuesday was in some ways a final test to determine whether Trump remains beatable. And the results seem to suggest that what little has been done to thwart him hasn’t been enough.
Both Rubio and Trump campaigned in Georgia on Monday, but in the end Rubio had little to show for his strategy of picking around Atlanta’s northern suburbs in search of support from more moderate voters.
“If Donald Trump is our nominee, we are going to lose a generation of voters and a generation of Americans,” the Florida senator had warned at a lunchtime rally on primary day. In the end, his warnings didn’t seem to matter. Trump, who had drawn a crowd of 10,000 in rural south Georgia, beat Rubio by a double-digit margin.
The one bright spot for Rubio, who struggled to put a positive spin on his many losses Tuesday night, was Minnesota, where record turnout resulted in his first win. His campaign again focused its sights on the suburban vote, with the implication being that people in such areas are more educated and wealthier—two descriptors that don’t always fit Trump voters, who tend to be working class.
Rubio chalked the Minnesota victory up to his recent efforts to confront Trump by mocking him and labeling him a fraud. “Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist,” he said, “and in just five days, we have seen the impact that it is having across the country.”
But the central question remained: What’s the case for rallying behind Rubio when there’s barely any evidence that he’s the most electable alternative to Trump? Cruz has won more contests.
Even Rubio’s own fans, at the Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans event held at the Rooftop Bar and Grill in Arlington, Virginia, weren’t particularly enthused by their candidate’s performance. Northern Virginia had broken solidly for Rubio, according to exit polling, but there was a feeling of resignation in the air. Dan Goldbeck, a member of the group, argued that Rubio still has a shot because he might win a brokered convention.
“As the rules are written, all these states are now proportional, so he’s still going to get a lot of second- and third-place delegates,” Goldbeck said.
A pair of young Republicans who didn’t want to give their names telegraphed a sentiment just short of despair.
“These are all proportional states, so he’s racking up delegates,” said one attendee, who identified himself as Jeff. “If you block Trump from getting a clear majority, it goes to a convention. And are the Trump people organized? Are they electing delegates in all these districts? I don’t know any Trump delegates in Arlington.”
Despite holding out hope for a brokered convention where Rubio might prevail, Jeff and a friend both seemed exasperated by their candidate’s performance.
“There’s a reason we held this party on a rooftop: You can walk right off,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Houston, Cruz sounded an awful lot like Rubio in his denunciation of Trump, calling the businessman a “Washington dealmaker, profane and vulgar, who has a lifelong pattern of using government power for personal gain.”
And much as Rubio has done, the Texas senator repeated his own call for Trump to make public the off-the-record comments he made to The New York Times, as well as pledging not to remain neutral on the issue of Israel.
But as long as the Republican primary remains essentially a three-way race, Trump is unbeatable. And on Tuesday night, neither senator showed any sign of giving up on his campaign.
“Tonight was another decision point, and the voters have spoken,” Cruz said. “Tomorrow morning we have a choice: So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump’s path to the nomination remains more likely, and that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives, and for the nation.”
Cruz urged those who had not yet made up their minds to “prayerfully consider our coming together, uniting.”
Barring a coming together for the ages, Trump will run off with the nomination nobody ever expected him to come within a mile of.
—with additional reporting by Patricia Murphy, Betsy Woodruff, and Gideon Resnick.