The next six weeks or so are going to be some of the most consequential for the outcome of the Republican presidential primary races. Front-runner Donald Trump has now insinuated he may not support the party's eventual nominee, and party leaders have announced their intentions to wage an aggressive, delegate-by-delegate fight against Trump in the weeks and months leading up to the July convention.
And now, unlike in November, Trump is no longer seen as "Teflon Don." His antics have begun to catch up with him and are now chomping into his general election poll numbers, while the remaining states he needs to win are likely to be much more competitive than previous contests.
The Republicans may have lost any chance of preserving party unity for the general election by this point, but a successful 100-day campaign against Trump before the convention could at least deny him the chance of being the party's nominee.
It's worth noting that the context of Trump's original rise to the top of the polls was amongst an incredibly large and divided group of candidates, and that this division has ended up damaging the Republican Party.
Even now, when it's clear Trump is the front-runner and is on track to become the nominee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio refuse to compromise on states in which each is individually strong against Trump, as The New York Times notes. Both of these candidates still believe they can win the presidency, which seems like somewhat of a fantasy given the share of the popular vote which Trump has taken in most contests so far.
But the party's move to wage a 'delegate war' against Trump could work. It requires party leaders to make a disciplined plea to delegates in states which have not yet voted, as most remaining contests apportion delegates by congressional district rather than winner-take-all.
Other delegates who could be targeted are those uncommitted ones sent to the convention by states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, as well as delegates from candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or former governor Jeb Bush of Florida. Rubio has recently petitioned GOP officials in 21 states to allow him to keep his delegates even though he has suspended his campaign, adding another lever by which to deny Trump the nomination.
To be honest, Republican party elders should pursue this strategy quietly so as to not openly alienate Trump's supporters further. Some of the #NeverTrump forces, like Glenn Beck or National Review's Kevin D. Williamson, have shown as much contempt towards Trump's supporters as Trump's supporters have shown the Republican establishment. For the GOP to resuscitate any chance they have to hold onto both houses of Congress and win the White House in November, it needs at least to attempt to reach out to Trump's supporters even as its leaders try to undermine Trump's presidential prospects.
And the best way to do this is not to heap invective on the man or his supporters, but to allow Trump to do the damage himself. He is now on the defensive for a great many understandable reasons - the Heidi Cruz tweets, the Corey Lewandowski incident, his incredibly poor responses at the recent GOP town hall in Wisconsin, and the continued violence at his rallies - none of which require the GOP to lift a finger.
Vox reported on March 31 that the most recent general election polls from HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics have Trump trailing both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, accompanied by terrible-looking trendlines for the billionaire as the general election approaches closer. While polls are notoriously inaccurate, they become less so as election day approaches, and early-mid April is just about the time which the general election polls begin to matter more.
The Republicans should therefore continue to mount their delegate war against Trump if they want to prevent him from running away with the nomination, although the approach needs to be disciplined. The candidate was always going to hit a ceiling at some point, and the most recent polls indicate that he seems to be reaching it.
Of course, anything is possible in this race and it's likely that if Trump actually becomes the nominee, Republicans who may not support him now may eventually fall in line if the choice is between Trump and Hillary Clinton. But from the events of the past few weeks and given his recent weakness in the polls, it seems like the decline of Trump is underway.
Whether it is momentary or permanent is another question.