This was not a good week for Donald Trump. His 9/11 story evoked significant criticism not just from other candidates but also from the wider conservative audience, which is angry he is blaming President George W. Bush for the al-Qaida attack that was allowed to develop during the Clinton years.
Then (whether there is causality is unknowable) there are two near-identical Iowa polls showing Ben Carson at 28 percent, crushing Trump (who falls to 20 and 19, respectively, in the Quinnipiac poll and the highly reliable Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.) That is the first significant sign that the Trump balloon is losing air.
The Post also reports: "A super PAC with ties to Donald Trump's presidential campaign is shutting down in an effort to put an end to building questions about the closeness of the two operations, the group's lead consultant said Thursday."
And let's not forget the errant retweet insulting Iowans ("Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain?"), which Trump blamed on an intern.
It sure looks like amateur hour from a team that has no experience running a presidential campaign. Apparently, in his first political organizing task – putting in place a competent team and abiding by legal requirements – Trump failed. It makes you wonder: Who are all these smart people he knows whom he is going to put in high government posts?
It is too soon to tell whether this is the beginning of the end of Trump. But it surely is the end of a beginning in which Trump dominated the race, the polls and the media and projected an aura of strength (in comparison with all those "losers" and "stupid" people). An amateur presidential campaign with a know-nothing candidate can survive for a few months, but the show has a limited shelf life.
More interesting questions now arise than "Will Trump be the nominee?" (No, unless Republicans collectively have lost their mind, a possibility that can never be entirely eliminated.)
The first issue is whether in the absence of a viable super PAC Trump will be willing to use a lot more of his own money. Deprived of nonstop free media coverage, he may have to shell out millions more to buy ads and conduct ordinary campaign operations. It is one thing to chip in $1 million or so; it is quite another to spend tens of millions.
The most intriguing issue is how long Trump stays around if he is losing. As he said earlier in the month, "If (polls) changed, and that went in a different direction and if I thought that I wasn't going to win, like there are numerous people running, they're not going to win, okay? I would certainly want to get out." It is not clear if he was speaking about a particular state or the race as a whole.
The Trump shtick works only if he is a winner. This might suggest he would leave the race before losing a state and destroying the aura. Alternatively, it might mean he'd stay in but get out soon if he does not win one of the first few primaries. It is hard to imagine him trudging from state to state in March, spending boatloads of money to compete in winner-take-all states if he is not winning races.
When Trump does get out, it is far from clear where his supporters go. Many are non-caucus and non-primary voters, so they simply disappear altogether. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wants to lay claim to them, but he is ultraconservative, and many Trump supporters are moderate or even liberal Republicans.
His supporters love a winner, so they may go to whichever candidate is leading at the moment or looks like the eventual winner. As these things go, however, a candidate's support does not go all to one opponent.
Trump supporters and even some in the mainstream media have begun asserting that it is possible to see Trump as the nominee. Now, we would argue, it is easier to see him getting out.
Jennifer Rubin blogs for The Washington Post from a conservative perspective at washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn.