If Donald Trump had bombed in Sunday night's second presidential debate, the rest of the 2016 campaign would have been made simple for Republicans who have never really known what to do with him. They would have disowned him in droves, insisting that his recently revealed comments about women coupled with the sort of campaign he has run to date disqualifies him as the party's nominee.
Would it have worked? I'm skeptical — but it was at least a clear path to answering the “What the hell do we do about Donald Trump?" question that has been kicking around within the GOP since, roughly, last summer.
But Trump didn't bomb. Or, at least, he didn't bomb in the eyes of the Republican base who, almost to a person, insisted he had won the debate going away — thanks to his willingness to take on Bill Clinton's infidelity, Hillary Clinton's alleged lies and, of course, the bias of the media. Many conservatives had been waiting 20+ years for someone to tell the Clintons to their face just how terrible they really are. And Trump did it.
What Trump didn't do, of course, was find any sort of message that might appeal to undecided voters or to women — especially white women — who remain deeply skeptical of him. He won among conservatives by — willingly or not — losing among the swing voters he needs.
But, if you are a Republican elected official, it's only the first part of that sentence above that matters: Trump won among conservatives. And he won among conservatives by bashing the Clintons.
All of which means that walking away from him today is a whole hell of a lot harder than it was before the debate. To win an election — almost any election — you first need your base to come out and support you. Then you build outward from there. It's politics 101. So, if you are, say, Richard Burr running for another Senate term in North Carolina, you cannot win unless conservatives come out in droves to support you. And walking away from your nominee now — after he has, in the eyes of that base, finally stood up to the Clintons — means risking that a decent-sized chunk of those voters simply don't turn out for you. And no Republican candidate can risk that.
At the same time, refusing to disown Trump — given all of what he has said about, well, almost everyone — means that loosely affiliated Democrats and many independents are completely lost to you. It's a rock and a hard place. Period. Please one group, alienate the other. And, if either is alienated, you are going to have a very hard time winning.
This is the pinch that Trump's performance has put scads of Republican politicians in. Welcome to the conundrum of Trumpism.