Does the GOP nomination end 'not with a bang but a whimper'?
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Two weeks ago, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE had a clear, though narrow, path to winning a majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention. After Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas) almost shut him out in Wisconsin, the billionaire was said to be on the ropes. Or so goes the conventional narrative of the campaign. It makes for good drama, but poor analysis.

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Trump has never had a clear path to nailing down the nomination before the convention. He had a very long shot after taking four of the five big-state primaries on March 15, but only if he won Arizona, swept the Northeastern states in late April, held his own in the May contests, won New Jersey and took the lion's share of delegates in California. Even then, he would have to fend off delegate raids by Cruz and defections by "Trojan horse delegates" bound to him by party rules, but whose loyalties lie elsewhere.

The real estate mogul ran into a buzzsaw in Wisconsin, but skepticism is warranted that he's finally damaged himself with recent statements. Trump's supporters seem impervious to these controversies. He has survived blasting President George W. Bush, disparaging Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid McCain's family, McCain Institute to promote #ActsOfCivility in marking first anniversary of senator's death MORE's (R-Ariz.) prisoner-of-war experience, and calling Pope Francis "disgraceful" for questioning his plan to build "The Wall." Why would his prospects have dimmed after the recent, and retracted, statement about punishing women who have abortions and his snarky retweet of a photo of Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz's wife? Is Heidi Cruz really the last straw?

Trump crushed Ted Cruz in New York on April 19, and he's likely to dominate the Northeastern primaries a week later, where 109 bound delegates are at stake. Three weeks from now, the media narrative will have taken another turn: Trump has righted the ship and the wind is in his sails.

Another favorite media trope — also a fantasy of the GOP establishment — is the white-knight scenario in which an establishment-friendly candidate rides into a contested convention, is drafted as a consensus nominee and saves the party from itself. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Soaring deficits could put Trump in a corner if there's a recession Paul Ryan moving family to Washington MORE (Wis.), the GOP's favorite white knight, has now excused himself from the role.

Let's start with what we know.

• Trump is likely to enter the convention short of a majority but with a plurality, probably by a wide margin over Cruz.

• To date, of those held thus far, the New Yorker has won all primaries in states west of the Rocky Mountains except for Idaho, all New England state primaries, 11 of 12 Southern states, and two of three industrial Midwest states. He is the only candidate to demonstrate broad national appeal, and he's likely to end up winning a majority of state contest. Cruz's only primary wins have come in Wisconsin, Idaho, Oklahoma and Texas. His other victories were in scattered caucus states.

• Trump has beaten both Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in head-to-head polls for over a month. (See here and here.) He has drawn support from 25 percent of the Republican electorate for six months, while Cruz broke through 25 percent only a month ago. And Trump has led the Texas senator in national polls for eight months running.

• By margins of 22 to 30 points, Republican voters say the candidate with a plurality of delegates should win the nomination.

• Republican voters resoundingly reject, 63 percent to 27 percent, nominating someone who did not run in the primaries. A quarter of Republicans said they would be "angry" if the convention nominates someone from outside the field of primary candidates.

This all adds up to a strong case for the New Yorker's claim to the nomination, and public opinion will harden if voters see party leaders manipulating the rules to stop Trump.

One message has come through loud and clear in the 2016 GOP primaries: Republican voters have turned against their party's leadership. Broad majorities have surmounted primary rules designed to thwart rebellion in the ranks, and they've rejected every establishment candidate on offer, elevating the two harshest critics of the establishment. The modern primary process has instilled in voters a strong expectation that parties will follow the will of voters. The GOP's complex delegate allocation rules, Trojan horse delegates and shadowy convention rules are seen as undemocratic. Any attempt to use them to overturn voters' decisions is likely to ignite a firestorm.

You would think this would give party leaders pause in taking extraordinary measures to stop Trump, but they might decide it's better to blow up the convention and lose the election than allow him to redefine the GOP brand. If so, how would they stop him?

One popular theory is that party leaders will attempt to deadlock the convention and open the floor to other candidates. But a rule the party adopted in 2012 as an obstacle to outsider candidates complicates matters. Rule 40(b) requires a candidate to win a majority of delegates in eight states to qualify to have his name placed in nomination. Only Trump and Cruz will meet this requirement.

GOP leaders have dismissed the significance of Rule 40(b), saying it's a temporary rule that doesn't apply to the 2016 convention. But any attempt to institute rules for the 2016 convention substantially different from those used in 2012 — notably, not having a Rule 40(b) — will draw the wrath of Trump and his supporters. Cruz will oppose that move, too. His best shot at the nomination is to keep the contest a face-off with Trump. Trump and Cruz together might control a majority of the rules committee, but they will certainly control a majority of delegates. They will preserve Rule 40(b) come hell or high water.

That is, unless Cruz strikes a deal with party leaders to allow another candidate in the door. If Cruz were open to an agreement, what could the party offer? Any position requiring Senate confirmation is a nonstarter, since his colleagues would never confirm him. That leaves the presidential and vice presidential nominations. Would Cruz support another candidate in return for the vice presidential nomination? No. Cooperating with party leaders to anoint an insider using undemocratic means would be a profound violation of Cruz's value proposition. His bitter opposition to the establishment has fueled his extraordinary ascent over the past five years;hHe could hardly turn around now and embrace an establishment figure.

Besides, how would that work? First, Cruz would have to support opening the convention to consider a third candidate. After the convention nominated that candidate, it would turn to nominating the vice president. Unlike balloting for the presidential nominee, however, delegates are not bound on all ballots for the vice presidential nomination.

Would Cruz be assured of receiving a majority of votes? He certainly wouldn't get many votes from Trump delegates after conspiring with the establishment to deny him the nomination. And after ignoring primary voters to nominate an insider, Cruz might have defections in his own ranks. While party leaders would fulfill their end of the bargain by encouraging delegates to support Cruz, many party loyalists feel as much affection for the Texan as they do for Trump. They will be free to vote as they please, and you can imagine the conversations GOP congressional leaders would have with their fellow delegates. It would be a good opportunity for some score settling. Cruz is too smart to fall into that trap.

There's another problem with this scenario. Why would anyone with serious presidential ambitions, and young enough to wait, want the nomination this year? The party will be a shambles if leaders ignore voters and the convention nominates someone other than Trump or Cruz, who have together won three-quarters of the primary vote. The nominee would emerge from a convention where violence is a distinct possibility, and he could face Trump, carrying a grudge, running as an independent and drawing much of Cruz's anti-establishment support. He might very well finish in third place and lead a debacle in down-ballot races. Who would risk this fate?

If Cruz were to deal, he'd deal with Trump. Once it became clear he couldn't win a majority, Cruz might agree to accept Trump's offer of the vice presidential nomination. Does that seem unlikely? John Kennedy hated Lyndon Johnson but offered him the nomination because he knew he needed Texas. Cruz is at least as ambitious as Johnson; he might accept the offer. Or, he could duck the 2016 bloodbath altogether and position himself for 2020. After all, no party has won four presidential elections elections in a row in 68 years.

Cruz already has a jump on the 2020 field. He has pressure-tested an electoral strategy, developed a fundraising network, built a strong ground operation, has a year of national campaigning under his belt and recruited a legion of dedicated acolytes. He will be the leading outsider rallying a Republican electorate no more enamored of the party's leadership four years from now than they are today. If Ryan chooses to deal with a President Clinton rather than oppose her, as conservatives will demand, Cruz will be in even better position to defeat an establishment candidate.

Three months out, the GOP is still denying the inevitable. But as the convention approaches, party leaders may conclude that discretion is the better part of valor and cede the nomination to Trump, ending the 2016 nomination battle, as T.S. Eliot might say, "not with a bang but a whimper."

Diehl is a former chief of staff of the U.S. Treasury Department, director of the U.S. Mint and staff director of the Senate Finance Committee.