Donald Trump is coming to a striking realization: it's possible, if not likely, that he's going to reach the Republican National Convention this summer with the most pledged delegates, the most votes, and the most state victories -- and the party will nominate someone else anyway.
It's not because the system is rigged against him. The problem is the Trump campaign has failed miserably to do the necessary follow-through at Republican conventions, where Ted Cruz's superior field operation has repeatedly filled delegate slates with its allies. On the first ballot, many of these delegates will be required to vote for Trump, but if the New York developer fails to reach a majority, many of those same delegates will quickly shift their allegiance. After the first ballot, Trump would likely to discover a Republican convention where he has few real friends.
And as this fact sinks in, Trump is beginning to lash out angrily at the process he's never fully understood or taken the time to study. At a New York rally the other day, Trump condemned the "corrupt" system and "crooked shenanigans."
Yesterday, he went further, insisting that the RNC created a system that's been deliberately "stacked against" him. "The Republican National Committee, they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this kind of crap to happen," Trump said. In an interview with The Hill, the candidate added that the process is a "scam" and a "disgrace."
Ordinarily, RNC officials have bit their tongues and allowed Trump to launch into tirades like these without interference, but conditions have changed.
[Last night] RNC chairman Reince Priebus battled back against Trump's criticism. "Nomination process known for a year + beyond. It's the responsibility of the campaigns to understand it. Complaints now? Give us all a break," he tweeted.
This represents a clear shift in tone and posture for the Republican National Committee, which has remained neutral. This is easily the most forceful criticism, albeit oblique and without anyone being named specifically, Priebus has made at any point in the cycle.
The RNC chairman also happens to be correct.
The oddity of Trump's whining is his inability to recognize the root problem. There was nothing stopping Trump and his campaign operation from getting organized, recognizing the significance of the delegate-selection process, and lining up supporters at state, district, and local conventions. Team Cruz isn't cheating, so much as it's playing the game by the rules.
When Trump complains about corruption, what he's effectively saying is, "My team and I didn't realize we had to worry about all of that other stuff." To which Reince Priebus is understandably responding, "Give us all a break."
It's not the RNC's fault Team Trump, an amateurish operation led by a first-time candidate, didn't do its homework.
Why is the RNC pushing back now after months of irresponsible Trump rhetoric? The difference is Trump is currently questioning the legitimacy of Republican process itself. The candidate -- the ostensible frontrunner -- is now eagerly telling the country that the way in which his party chooses a presidential candidate has been corrupted, and the eventual nominee, if it's not him, is a thief who didn't legitimately earn the honor. That's not true and Priebus has a vested interest in setting the record straight.
It's worth emphasizing that all of this may prove to be a moot point. As we discussed the other day, Trump may very well get to 1,237 pledged delegates -- the estimable Steve Kornacki believes it's actually quite likely -- before the start of the Republican National Convention in July, at which point Cruz's success at state conventions almost certainly won't matter, and Trump will prevail on the first ballot.
But the odds are roughly as good that Trump won't reach that threshold and his amateurish understanding of the rules will end up costing him dearly.