Just something I’ve been thinking about while staring at polls showing him losing Arizona and all 58 of its delegates handily to Trump tomorrow night, thanks in part to a ridiculous early-voting process that’s had people casting ballots for a solid month. (How many votes will Jeb Bush win tomorrow?) Even if Cruz cleans up among late deciders, now that their choice has effectively been narrowed to him and Trump, he’s still apt to lose the state thanks to Trump’s advantage among early birds. Let me remind you again of what Politico wrote a week ago about Team Cruz’s strategy going forward:

“I don’t want to put any clippings on our opponents’ locker room but I’ll say this: In surveys that we’ve taken in a two-man race versus a four-man race, in the states after March 12, we see, of the 70 percent that’s available [among current non-Trump voters], we literally see 90 percent of that vote to come to us,” Roe said.

But that consolidation has to happen fast. Cruz’s top strategists say they believe Cruz must win decisively in Arizona and Utah, the next states to vote on March 22.

Cruz should win decisively in Utah but a win, let alone a decisive win, is unlikely in Arizona. Even if Cruz hits 50 percent in Utah and takes all of the state’s 40 delegates, which is no sure thing, Trump will still end up gaining on him in the delegate totals tomorrow night. So that’s one supposed must-win, Arizona, down the tubes. The next one, according to a NYT piece from over the weekend, is Wisconsin:

Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kasich also see the Wisconsin primary as pivotal. Mr. Cruz’s campaign is dispatching additional staff members there and opening a “Camp Cruz” to house volunteers. The campaign will begin running ads there in the next few days, aiming to get a head start on Mr. Trump in the state.

Wisconsin votes April 5, the only primary between tomorrow night and New York on April 19th. Is Cruz going to win there? If he does, it’ll help build the perception that he still has a chance to hold Trump under 1,237. But what if he doesn’t? The last poll of the state, conducted in late February, had it Trump 30, Rubio 20, Cruz 19; Cruz will pick up a bunch of votes from Rubio — but so might Kasich, especially given his midwestern appeal. Cruz does very well among Wisconsin’s rural voters but Trump excels with urbanites, suggesting a close race. If Trump wins Wisconsin and then follows up two weeks later with a rout in his home state of New York, he’ll still be hundreds of delegates away from clinching but confidence in Cruz’s ability to block him, even in a winnowed field, will be badly damaged. And a fight to the bitter end will cost money: Cruz still has $8 million in the bank but he spent $17.5 million in February alone. He’ll continue to get money from #NeverTrumpers for as long as he presses on, but that’s chump change. What he needs is big checks. How many wealthy conservative donors will want to hand him a million dollars in May to run a campaign which, at best, has a chance of holding Trump under a majority before the convention and which looks far more likely to damage the likely nominee before he squares off with Hillary? They’re spending money to stop Trump now, but what happens if the primary results over the next month are demoralizing?

That is to say, what happens when some of the more prominent #NeverTrumpers out there start to throw in the towel and demand party unity? What effect will that have on Cruz’s anti-Trump turnout in the primaries to come?

But in a practical sense, there will be a lot of pressure over the next three, slow months to fall in line. There are lots of reasons for people to be worried about or skeptical of Trump, but there’s also lots of incentive to avoid four months of vicious in-fighting that further pits the party’s leaders against what is apparently at least a third (if not more) of the party’s voting base. There’s incentive for prominent Republicans to Put the Party First, as the saying goes, both from the standpoint that it gets them in the nominee’s good graces and from the standpoint that it dampens the turmoil.

Each time Trump picks up another member of the establishment, he gains momentum moving forward. It weakens the argument that he’s unacceptable and provides an additional disincentive to keep fighting him. It makes it easier for others to do the same thing. It’s the snowball effect. And since Cruz has an even bigger delegate hole to fill, each new bit of support for Trump makes it more likely that the party will start looking at Cruz to give it up.

The party will support, and even cheer on, a long run by Cruz so long as it looks like he’s turning the tide against Trump. Even if Trump ends up with more delegates at the convention, it’s a big deal if Cruz starts beating him steadily head to head, finishes the campaign on a winning streak, and lands in Cleveland within, say, 200 delegates of Trump. If the next month brings mostly defeat, though, the calculus will change to either reluctantly lining up behind Trump to maximize the GOP’s chances against Hillary this fall or investing in a third-party effort to split conservative votes from Trump this fall. The momentous question is: Will Cruz go along with calls to quit? He’s built his brand, after all, on defying the party, most famously during the 2013 shutdown. Nothing would endear him more to anti-Trump conservatives than pressing ahead to the end, refusing to concede an inch to Trump, even if (or especially if) establishmentarians are howling at him to throw in the towel. Cruz can build a lot of respect among righties by standing on principle and taking this all the way to California, win or lose. But is it worth to him? Is he planning to lead some sort of conservative resistance faction to Trumpism in the Senate? Or is he going to do what he’s done with conservatives and libertarians, namely, triangulate between conservatives and Trumpists? If he thinks Trump’s movement will remain a durable player in the GOP, he needs to build some respect with them as well ahead of 2020 or 2024. Graciously standing down in mid-May, say, and pledging his support for the now presumptive nominee in the interest of beating Hillary Clinton — even while reiterating his profound ideological disagreements with Trump — would be one way to build that respect.

It all depends, I think, on what the next six weeks bring. I don’t think Cruz is going to insist on putting Trump through his paces by contesting every last primary if he has no momentum of his own. If, six weeks from now, he’s notched some key wins, he’ll fight on. If he hasn’t, I think there’s a very fair chance he bows out. As it is, he needs a galvanizing upset, the sooner the better, to convince people that a brokered convention really is a sure thing and we’re all better off starting to game out the floor fight in Cleveland.