Social conservatives were confident they'd finally figured it out. The 2016 race would finally be their year. They had a strategy, a candidate, and an opportunity to wield the power and influence that has long eluded them.
Instead, the Republican presidential race went to a guy who thinks "II Corinthians" is read as "Two Corinthians."
Revisiting our coverage from last year, the pattern started in earnest in 1996. Social conservative leaders and the religious right movement weren't sold on Bob Dole as the Republicans' presidential nominee, but they struggled to rally behind a credible alternative.
In nearly every election cycle that followed, a similar dynamic unfolded. In 2000, the religious right wanted John Ashcroft, who didn't run. In 2008, the religious right hated John McCain, but it couldn't settle on a rival. In 2012, social conservatives were skeptical about Mitt Romney, but again, it failed to coalesce behind someone else.
The movement and its leaders were absolutely determined not to repeat their mistakes. This would finally be the cycle, the religious right's heavyweights insisted, in which social conservatives en masse made an early decision, chose a competitive GOP candidate, and helped propel him or her towards the convention.
After careful consideration and months of deliberation, they chose Ted Cruz to be the religious right's standard bearer. He then came in second.
Bloomberg View's Francis Wilkinson wrote last week, when the writing was obviously on the GOP's wall, "The rout of social conservatives in this campaign is absolute. Their future looks grim."
The problem isn't that Trump has a disco ball where his moral compass should be. It's that he isn't particularly interested in the social conservative agenda -- or even in pretending that he is.
Aside from a few comic forays into biblical scholarship early in his campaign, and later comments about abortion that were so off message that they merely confirmed his lack of interest in the topic, Trump is running free and clear of the entire movement. He's leaving social conservatives in the dust.
Worse, Trump's general indifference towards the religious right's agenda doesn't appear to have cost him much of anything.
After losing five out of six primaries over the last two weeks, Bernie Sanders was eager to win Indiana. While Hillary Clinton shifted her focus to Donald Trump and the general election, the Vermont senator made a real effort in the Hoosier state, investing nearly $400,000 in television advertising -- Clinton spent literally $0 -- and holding multiple events to rally the faithful.
The good news for Sanders is that his efforts were successful enough to deliver a primary victory. The bad news for Sanders is that the delegate math required him to win by a huge margin, and that didn't happen. MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reported overnight:
Every time the [Democratic] race seems headed to the finish, voters decide to extend it, as they did in Michigan in March. But that could change now that Ted Cruz has dropped out and Donald Trump has effectively secured the Republican nomination, putting Hillary Clinton squarely in the billionaire's sights.
Sanders' win does nothing to knock Clinton off her glidepath to the nomination, since the few delegates he picks will barely dent her massive 300-plus pledged delegate lead. But it will be a much-needed fundraising and momentum boost to a fading candidate who has pledged to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention in July, even though his only path to victory involves improbable landslides and fanciful schemes to flip superdelegates.
It's a dynamic that causes endless frustration for Sanders' die-hard supporters. He'll win a race, which raises his backers' hopes, only to learn soon after that the victory wasn't significant enough to change the trajectory of the race.
So let's be more specific about Sanders' quantitative challenge. The senator can try to win the nomination by convincing party insiders to overrule the will of the voters, but even Sanders' top aides recognize this is unrealistic. The other avenue is catching up to Clinton among pledged delegate -- he'll need roughly 66% of those still available -- by racking up some big wins in the calendar's remaining contests.
How big? If Sanders won each of the remaining primaries and caucuses by 30 points each -- an improbable task, to be sure -- he'd still come up short. That's how significant his current deficit it. None of this, by the way, factors superdelegates into the equation. I'm referring only to pledged delegates, earned exclusively through nominating contests decided by rank-and-file voters.
On April 5, one month ago tomorrow, Ted Cruz easily won the Wisconsin presidential primary, leading the Texas senator to declare that the race for the Republican nomination was on an entirely new trajectory.
Indeed, a month ago, there were certain things much of the political world simply accepted as fact. Everyone knew there would be a contested GOP national convention. Everyone knew Cruz's advantage at state conventions was likely to pay dividends. And everyone knew the Texan was in this for the long haul.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ended his presidential campaign on Tuesday after failing to top Donald Trump in the Indiana Republican primary.
"From the beginning, I've said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory," Cruz told supporters at an election night rally in Indianapolis. "Tonight, I'm sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed."
The senator's campaign went all out to win Indiana -- a state Team Cruz saw as friendly territory, and where polls showed him ahead a month ago -- but he ended up losing by nearly 17 points. Cruz could have turned the next couple of months into some kind of vanity exercise, dragging out the process unnecessarily, but given the arithmetic, the Texan no longer saw the point of waging a fight with a predetermined outcome.
Also note, adding Carly Fiorina to the ticket for a week was not the silver bullet Team Cruz was looking for. The California Republican is now the only candidate to seek national office twice in 2016, only to fail spectacularly both times.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus agreed last night that Trump is now the party's "presumptive" presidential nominee -- a message he couldn't have enjoyed writing -- which seems like the appropriate label. John Kasich's campaign was quick to protest, but the fact remains that the Ohio governor is still trailing Marco Rubio in the overall delegate count, and Rubio quit in mid-March.
Kasich, in other words, is running fourth in a three-man race, which makes it difficult for him to complain about the RNC's embrace of Trump.
We'll talk about Trump's road ahead a little later, but let's first take a moment to consider Cruz as he exits the stage.
Steve Kornacki shows how Donald Trump will likely pursue a general election strategy of winning upper-Midtwest industrial states with large white populations rather than follow the Republican plan devised after their 2012 loss that looked to expand the party's appeal to Latino voters. watch
Nicolle Wallace, Republican strategist, talks about the low expectations Donald Trump had for his own chances of winning the Republican nomination when his campaign first began, and how he was motivated by his loss in Wisconsin. watch
Rachel Maddow and an MSNBC panel react to Ted Cruz suspending his campaign for president and what it means for the Republican Party that Donald Trump now apparently has an unobstructed path to the Republican nomination. watch
Steve Schmidt, Republican strategist, talks with an MSNBC panel about the challenge Donald Trump faces to heal the political rift within the Republican Party, and the opportunity that presents to Hillary Clinton to draw some bipartisan support. watch
Will Republican leaders rally around Trump if he is the party's nominee? And how might a Trump nomination affect local and state races? Steve Schmidt talks to Chris Matthews about what could happen leading up to November. watch
Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for the Bernie Sanders campaign, talks with Rachel Maddow about the tight race in Indiana and the Sanders campaign's criticism of how the Clinton campaign works with the DNC to raise money. watch
Chuck Todd, NBC News political director, talks with an MSNBC panel about Donald Trump's apparently inclination to indulge conspiracy theories, including today's National Enquirer report about Ted Cruz's father and Lee Harvey Oswald, and whether that interest could cost him politically. watch
Something about this year's presidential race makes me wish I had a degree in US history. Current reading: https://t.co/SkzlPOTehM