Landslide defeat might actually help tycoon to stay politically relevant
Like an illusionist before a great reveal, Donald Trump - speaking at the Las Vegas debate - said: "I will keep you in suspense".
He's a showman, this is what he does. But his refusal to say whether or not he'll accept the legitimacy of the election result on November 8 alarmed rather than delighted the audience.
It suggests that his campaign will continue even if he loses. That President Hillary Clinton won't be allowed to get on with her job.
How extraordinary is this threat? Not as much as left-wing pundits say. Election results have been contested before.
Some Republicans accused John F Kennedy of stealing the election in 1960; the 2000 Florida recount tested the limits of American democracy. Harbouring doubts about such an enormous, flawed process is rational.
In the Las Vegas debate, Trump cited a 2012 Pew study that found one in eight electoral registrations may be inaccurate - although it did not conclude that fraud is widespread.
Throw into this mix Clinton's reputation for corruption and Trump seems borderline rational.
It is more unusual for candidates to question an election before it's actually happened, however (it's not unheard of though, as the Democrats complained about a break-in at their Watergate hotel HQ in the run-up to the 1972 presidential election - to the disinterest of the American voters).
Worse, Mr Trump's unqualified dislike of his opponent, attacks on the media, use of the word "rigged", etc, prepares his fan base not so much for defeat as enemy occupation followed by guerrilla war.
The logic of his conspiracy talk is that there will have to be a resistance.
A chance for Mr Trump to make money, too. His family is believed to be exploring the creation of a new television network. Programming would likely be limited at first to Mr Trump's monologues and some cheap reality TV - but the size of his vote in the primaries suggests that an audience exists.
Again, this is not a first. The Sarah Palin Channel, a subscription service, launched in 2014 . . . and shut down in 2015.
Most failed presidential tickets fade away or "retire" into regular political service - as John Kerry did when he later became Secretary of State.
But what can a candidate who has no party influence, no obvious fallback option, do next?
Mr Trump, like Ms Palin, may choose to continue his presidential campaign through the press and speeches. To engage in a constant excavation of his defeat - threatening to do it all over again.
American political history is full of such figures. George C Wallace, the segregationist Democrat, ran for the presidency four times from 1964 to 1976 and operated a sort of southern court in Alabama. Ross Perot, the Texan businessman, took nearly a fifth of the vote in 1992 and hung around for the next four years marshalling opposition to free trade.
In other words, one does not need elected office or even an election victory behind you to sustain relevance.
On the contrary, spectacular defeat - of the variety Mr Trump faces - could translate into political longevity.
Unlike Mitt Romney, a decent but dull moderate, Mr Trump will go down representing something. The "lower" he goes, to borrow Michelle Obama's language, the higher will be the esteem of his fans.
As far as they're concerned, he is being crucified for telling the truth.
I'm left thinking: "How can Clinton govern?"
Millions of Americans will believe she stole this election; others will regard her election as a fluke. She is disliked. I can detect no popular constituency for her agenda.
If the Republicans retain the House, then she will struggle to implement it.
Mr Trump has signposted a change in US politics - the death of orthodox thinking and spin.
Yet his implosion has elevated a woman who most obviously represents the past.
She has the smell of a one-term president.
The two-party system will resurface eventually. (© Daily Telegraph London)