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Donald Trump’s terrible night in Colorado exemplifies his campaign’s Achilles’ heel

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The assumption for months was that everything would fall into place. That there was no need to really dig in, that the outcome was obvious. And then, too late, it became clear that this optimism was unfounded. Or maybe not too late, but late enough in the process to mean that folks would have to scramble. And now everything is up in the air.

The paragraph above describes the Republican establishment’s attitude about Donald Trump’s candidacy, obviously. But it also describes Trump’s push for the nomination itself.

From the moment he stepped onto that escalator on Trump Tower until about a month ago, Trump’s assumption was that he could power his way to the nomination through sheer force of will. That the scene when he strolled through the Iowa State Fair, pulling people into a tight cluster around him as he moved through the crowd, would work at an electoral level as well. And, despite the skepticism of the establishment (and myself), it nearly did. With remarkably little effort beyond bopping around the country in his private jet, Trump vaulted into the lead and stayed there.

But that strategy has hit its limit, thanks mostly to Ted Cruz’s dogged campaign efforts and the enormous luck of the Republican Party in having such a huge field. Ben Carson and Marco Rubio and Jeb! Bush (remember Jeb!?) didn’t peel away too many delegates, but between them and Cruz and John Kasich, they’ve set aside a lot of delegates that might otherwise go to Trump. In 2012, the non-Mitt-Romney candidates ended with 530 delegates combined. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich have more than 800.

Donald Trump says he can't wait to take on Hillary Clinton in the fall, but here are three reasons why he could lose a general election. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Scott Olson/The Washington Post)

So now, just as the establishment had to scramble to try to cobble together an effort to put spike strips in Trump’s path — an effort that may barely have been in time — Trump has to scramble to figure out how to put together the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch.

The problem, as we’ve noted before, is that his team has shown no ability to do so. Trump hired Paul Manafort to organize the effort, apparently usurping Corey Lewandowski’s authority. But what’s happening in Colorado this week shows why that is a trickier job than it might seem.

Colorado’s delegate selection process is a messy one, thanks to a variety of causes. (FrontloadingHQ’s Josh Putnam, whose site is an invaluable resource on the rules guiding the Republican contests, has a distinct air of exasperation as the Colorado process is explained.)

Our Ed O'Keefe outlined it in detail on Wednesday. In short, the state’s individual congressional districts and, on Saturday, the state as a whole, hold votes to pick delegates to attend July’s national convention in Cleveland. Those delegates have either declared their intent to support a candidate or not, meaning that they are either bound to support a candidate or they aren’t. It’s bound delegates that Trump wants, because he needs to enter Cleveland with as close to a solid, unwavering majority as he can get. If he shows up with 1,100 bound delegates and 140 unbound ones, the Republican Party will do everything it can to get those 140 to change their minds. The convention isn’t a Super Bowl, played on neutral ground. It’s Stalingrad, and Trump doesn’t want a siege.

On Thursday night, the 7th Congressional District in Colorado voted for its delegates. And for Trump, it was a complete mess.

Trump’s campaign gave voters walking in a short slate of candidates that would support Trump.

Unfortunately, two of those names weren’t actually on the ballot.

There were three Trump delegates on the ballot itself, in a contest that picked three convention attendees. It’s just that the Trump slate from the Trump campaign didn’t match the ballot. Why?

It’s worth noting, though, that even having a printed slate was a step forward for Trump’s camp. The campaign’s state director told MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin that the campaign wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to print slates at the two congressional districts that already voted (and gave their delegates to Cruz).

That’s the campaign’s new state director, mind you.

In the end, delegates from Cruz’s slate won the three slots — two of whom are unbound.

As Putnam of FrontloadingHQ wrote last month: “Colorado becomes a real delegate prize for the campaigns who are able to organize there. Those that gain an organizational advantage — and that is much more likely in a low turnout election without the incentive of a presidential preference vote — have a real opportunity to get something out of the Centennial state.”

Speaking at a rally in Scotia, N.Y., Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz criticizes the media for claiming Donald Trump is "unstoppable" in New York (Video: Reuters)

Trump — as has happened so often in the past — got out-organized.

It’s unfair to pin this debacle on Manafort, the newly hired staffer in charge of fixing this problem. But it reinforces that Trump’s team is playing catch-up. Organizing is not instant; you can’t simply hire a new top guy in New York and immediately expect things in a congressional district in Colorado to change. You need to find people, you need to get up to speed on processes, you need to invest in resources — human and otherwise. None of those things happened in Colorado, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll be lined up before tomorrow.

To Trump’s detriment, this is basically the only game in town. It will be very hard for him to hit the 1,237 marker simply by winning state contests (as we’ve illustrated before) — and, anyway, he’s not doing any better at actually winning those contests.

The race is now a slog for delegates in the mud outside Stalingrad, and Trump’s only now pulling on his boots.