The conventional wisdom was that almost any of the other 16 Republican presidential candidates could have run better than Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s team certainly believed it.

Now that Trump is president-elect, not only was his weakness clearly exaggerated. With the benefit of hindsight, Trump may have been the only Republican contender who could have broken Clinton’s blue wall and pulled off the upset.

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” said a D.C. anti-Trump conservative. “Now it sure seems like it.”

Consider Trump’s unlikely path to a majority in the Electoral College. Trump held on to every state Mitt Romney won in 2012 and managed to flip perennial battleground Florida into the Republican column. But the real difference-maker was Trump’s strong performance in the industrial Midwest, giving him Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and likely Michigan.

When all is said and done, Trump will probably receive 306 electoral votes. Which of his primary opponents could have accomplished what House Speaker Paul Ryan described as an “enormous” and “incredible political feat” by replicating his huge rural white voter turnout or replacing it with other voting blocs?

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio might have put a dent in Clinton’s popular vote margin by running ahead of Trump in the red states. Cruz probably would have done better than Trump in Texas; Rubio almost certainly would improved on Trump’s showing in Florida, since he ran 6.4 points ahead of the GOP presidential standard-bearer in the state while seeking a second Senate term.

There would have been no Evan McMullin challenge in Utah, where the independent conservative received more than a fifth of the vote. Presumably, Cruz, Rubio or any number of other Republicans could have kept some of the GOP votes that went to Libertarian Gary Johnson rather than Trump.

None of that matters much, however, because the popular vote doesn’t determine the presidential election winner and Trump carried all the red states even if he under-performed in them. From an Electoral College perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you win Utah by 50 points or 0.5.

Only two states award electoral votes by congressional district. Trump swept Nebraska’s electoral votes and picked up an extra one in Maine’s second congressional district. Trump maxed out on Republican-leaning electoral votes.

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It is harder to imagine the others candidates winning Wisconsin, Michigan or even Pennsylvania, none of which had voted Republican since Ronald Reagan was president.

Trump won non-college whites by nearly 40 points, including nearly three out of four white men without college degrees. He carried three Pennsylvania counties that went for Barack Obama in 2012. He did better than Romney in 58 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties while Clinton did worse than in Obama in 65 of them.

“Mainstream Romney-Ryan conservatism, with its platform of deregulation, free trade and tax cuts isn’t popular with these voters,” said George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, questioning whether it was popular enough in the country as a whole. Hawley made headlines for correctly predicting the presidential results in 48 out of 50 states.

Take away Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and the Republican presidential ticket is down to 260 electoral votes. Subtract Ohio and the number falls to 242. Where would a non-Trump Republican make this up?

Rubio might have competed better than Trump in Virginia and Colorado. He won the Republican caucuses in Minnesota, a state Trump came close to carrying last week. Cruz’s path to 270 looks even narrower, with Florida, Virginia and Colorado all being tougher slogs.

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“In the Sunbelt, the Republican senators pulled Trump across the finish line,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “In the Rush Belt, he helped pull some of them across the finish line.”

Hawley pointed out that while Trump’s 58 percent of the white vote was actually slightly less than Romney’s national share, the 2016 nominee increased his percentage of the white vote in the states where it mattered most. The states where his share declined or held steady were mostly already safely red or blue.

Absent Trump’s Rust Belt appeal, O’Connell argued that the party’s next best bet in the Electoral College might have been Rubio and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who won re-election in a landslide.

One other 2016 Republican contender who might have been able to pull it off: John Kasich. The two-term Ohio governor would have been able to win his home state. Maybe he could have made a play in Pennsylvania, where he was born, and Michigan, though it should be noted that he tried to do so during the GOP primaries and failed.

“John always looks better on paper,” said O’Connell.

Either way, Kasich did not position himself well to make it out of the Republican primaries and only ended up winning Ohio.

Maybe another Republican candidate could have paved some other path to an electoral majority, but it is by no means obvious.

Whether Trump can be a model for future Republican candidates, or could even pull it off a second time himself, is still up in the air.

“We don’t know yet if Trumpism is a sustainable long-term electoral solution [for Republicans],” Hawley said. “It just worked better than a traditional Republican campaign this year.”

Media ready for Trump to fail

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The national media that misread Trump’s popularity are now anticipating his likely failures.

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