Nearly everyone in the Republican Party could benefit from Donald Trump losing, including Trump himself. The question is just about how he loses, and when.
It's obvious at this point that Trump is rapidly deflating. Even putting aside his loss in Wisconsin Tuesday night, every indication we have is that he would be decimated in a general election. According to a Washington Post poll from last week, he's losing to Hillary Clinton by double digits. Demographics that went heavily for Mitt Romney, such as married white women, despise him. He's even underwater with white voters without college degrees, his supposed base. In Wisconsin, exit polling soon after the polls closed showed that a plurality of Wisconsin GOP voters without a college degree chose Ted Cruz over Trump, by a margin of 47 - 37 percent.
"In the modern polling era, since around World War II, there hasn't been a more unpopular candidate than Donald Trump," says the Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.
And it's hard to imagine how Trump can turn this all around. His name ID is as high as a candidate could hope for, but the more voters see of him, the less they like him. Two months ago, he was essentially tied with Clinton in head-to-head match-ups in the RealClearPolitics average. She now leads him by 10 points. In fact, if Trump is the nominee, a Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday indicates that even the solidly Republican Deep South could be up for grabs.
Winning the Republican nomination only to lose the general election in the most humiliating fashion possible probably doesn't hold much appeal to Trump. In fact, we're not even sure he really wants to be president.
Every so often he has a way of signaling that the White House doesn't seem that appealing to him. Last week, for example, he said he thought his "Muslim ban" would be end of his campaign. According to a New York magazine piece this week, Trump always expected that he'd be back to hosting "The Apprentice" by now, which if true would explain a lot of his misguided strategic decisions in recent months. Presidential candidates are typically known for their insatiable appetite for the job. Trump, on the other hand, appears to be a guy who isn't even studying up on the issues he's going to be asked about for months.
So if you're a guy who's spent decades building a brand on "winning" -- a brand you personally value at $10 billion -- and you're looking down the prospect of a historic defeat, what's the best thing that could happen to you?
The answer for Trump is simple: fall short of winning the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination before the convention and then watch as the GOP "steals" the nomination from you.
This is the outcome that allows Trump to maintain some of his newfound political influence, retain his status as a folk hero to his fans, and still insist he's still a winner. He won, but they took it away. He would've beaten Hillary, he'll insist for the rest of his life, but the GOP elite went with Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan or whomever and lost to Hillary.
Trump is forced to go back to his life of luxury, and might even launch a new show where he fires people with his children (Arnold Schwarzenegger is already taking over his old show). The GOP is divided and loses to Hillary, but they'll lose with a candidate that a plurality of their electorate is comfortable with, which might mean they'll even hold onto the Senate.
Alternatively, there's a scenario where the traditional conservative wing of the GOP or the establishment or whatever you want to call the anti-Trump Republicans could benefit from the Donald limping out of Cleveland as the nominee. Let's say the polls are right, Trump gets decimated, and some solidly red states go blue. The GOP loses a bunch of seats in the House and Senate.
It's a total disaster, in other words, which would in turn vindicate the central thesis of the anti-Trumpers: that he's an awful candidate, that his policies make little sense and aren't conservative, and that ever nominating anyone like him ever again would be catastrophic. The party's nascent nationalist-populist wing will be responsible for an epic failure, sending that faction back into the wilderness for the foreseeable future. Conservatism of the Cruz/Ryan school will once again be the only major force in the party.
If all of this sounds too simple, well, that's because it is. A Democratic victory could give the Supreme Court a liberal lean for decades. Trumpism might yet endure like conservatism did after Barry Goldwater's loss in 1964 -- the remainder of the GOP field, after all, has been aping Trump's positions on trade and immigration for months. The Republican Party could still easily fracture in the near future regardless of who their nominee is.
And that's because, any way you look at it, the short-term prognosis for the GOP just doesn't look very good. Still, though, there is a way for it to stay more-or-less how it is, remain intact, and win a presidential election soon enough. That may be cold comfort for Republicans, but if the GOP survives Trump, if it learns and adapts from this experience, it could come out of 2016 stronger and more united than it's been in years.
Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing editor for politics for CBS News Digital