December 26, 2015
For months, Ted Cruz has followed in Donald Trump’s wake. At first he was often mocked, now he’s begrudgingly given credit for strategic wisdom. Either way it’s a little unseemly.
A presumptive leader of the Free World doesn’t normally put his future in the hands of an opposing candidate. There isn’t a whole lot of precedent for this, at least since the current primary system took hold in 1972.
Before the majority of delegates were won in open electoral competition, it was more common to use a stalking horse, or for a popular governor to run as a “Favorite Son” to lock up home state delegates to barter with at the convention.
Even back in the day, alliances among primary opponents were very rare. Beyond tying into Cruz’s reputation as an opportunist, we just aren’t used to seeing this approach.
Lately, things have shifted slightly as Trump has shown himself not much more willing to attack Cruz than the reverse. Given the opportunity in the last debate, he passed, even after Ted’s closed-door comments were publicly released.
Given Trump’s propensity to open fire at the slightest provocation, this is highly irregular. Some have (probably correctly) speculated this reluctance is due to conservative talk radio support for Cruz.
He’s their guy and when Trump said a few negative things about Ted’s temperament, Rush Limbaugh boxed his ears in. It goes deeper than this though.
The Cruz-Trump relationship is one of mutual dependency, but ultimately The Donald is likely the bigger supplicant. While Ted needs Trump for a variety of things, it’s mathematically impossible for Trump to get nominated without help from Cruz.
To test this theory out, I took the Real Clear Politics delegate estimating tool out for another drive. For anyone who didn’t read the related piece on Marco Rubio, it’s very hard to win a 3-way race with most delegates assigned proportionately.
When estimating for Rubio, I tried to guess as well as possible how each state would play out, based on a combination of recent polling, which type of candidates have done well there in 2008/2012, and gut feeling.
Imprecise and non-scientific for sure, but the interesting lesson was how little it mattered if certain adjustments were made.
As long as you accept the idea that some establishment-friendly candidate will stick around, there was a survival path even if Trump or Cruz swept the first several contests.
That got me wondering if there was any way at all that Trump could get enough delegates to clinch the nomination heading into the convention.
It’s technically possible, but even a very Donald-favorable scenario has him falling a little short. Let’s assume Trump wins Iowa, despite Cruz having a current advantage.
Let’s figure he goes on to win New Hampshire easily, not a huge stretch if he wins Iowa. From there, he takes off, even winning the Nevada caucus where Rubio and Cruz have done significantly more organizing.
Pretend Trump manages to win Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and pretty much any other important state you can think of, with the exception of Cruz taking Texas and Rubio scratching out a very narrow victory in Florida.
Trump defeats Rubio by good margins in blue states and Cruz fairly easily in red ones. On average he pulls 42-44% of the vote, in excess of his current poll standing.
Except for their rare victories, Rubio and Cruz poll in the low 30s in their better states, low mid-20s in their worse.
This assumes Rubio rarely wins more than the most establishment-friendly votes and Cruz not much more than the most evangelical-leaning, while splitting Tea Party with Trump.
I’m also figuring turnout is very high among irregular participants, strongly favoring Trump.
You can assume Rubio quickly gets rid of Chris Christie and/or Jeb Bush, or it takes longer. In the quicker scenario, Rubio gets a few more delegates for himself and could win Florida.
In the other, he holds fewer and loses Florida. However, the delegate allocation gives Trump fewer or a similar amount this way. If establishment candidates do ok, and a couple stick around, they hog crucial delegates.
If they struggle, the group quickly narrows to one, who will pull 22-30% depending on the state and take crucial delegates.
It’s hard to imagine Cruz getting much less than a third of the votes in a 3-way race in southern and border states. I think he’d actually win many of them, but gave virtually all to Trump, usually by a 10-15 point margin.
Using this scenario, neither Rubio nor Cruz pull ahead of the other in delegates, which is also important for Trump, as it makes it impossible for them to challenge his total.
Otherwise, he runs the risk of having a clear second-place finisher who is more palatable. To make this happen, I gave Trump wins in Oregon and Washington, two places I would strongly expect to favor Rubio.
With all of these contortions and Trump winning approximately 40 states, he still doesn’t get there. It’s close, but even with some RNC delegates forced to go to Trump on a first ballot because of primary results, he still finishes 50-100 short.
If you want to create a Trump pre-convention win, it requires one of two assumptions. Either the race drops to two candidates before March 15, which is unimaginable to me, or Trump regularly wins over 45% in a 3-way contest.
Having Ben Carson revive and stick around for a while doesn’t help. It harms Cruz, but creates more non-Trump delegates. I’m already assuming (for this exercise) Cruz loses Iowa and South Carolina and the March 1 states he’s spent the most time in.
There is no reason for Cruz to drop out before the convention. He’ll have money and if he can finish ahead of everyone except Trump, can promote himself as a compromise.
Same goes for Rubio, or any establishment candidate who would overpower him. Any hope insiders have of influencing the convention rests on keeping a horse in. 400-600 of 2400+ delegates are guaranteed to wind up with non-Cruz, non-Trump candidates.
This is why Trump needs Ted. He likely can’t get nominated without Cruz delegates. He either would need him to drop out early and hope a two-way contest with Rubio didn’t wind up with Marco winning a bunch of blue states 53/47, or more likely work out a convention deal.
Why would Cruz support Trump? If he has enough delegates, he won’t. If he can’t get nominated himself, why not? Trump could give him the VP spot, extra valuable when the presidential candidate is 70.
Trump can’t win a general election without Cruz voters turning out en masse. If he needed to give Ted veto over judicial appointments it would be worth it.
Remember, The Donald makes deals. He’s not a micromanager. Cruz would have a plenty large role. While Rubio might rather have a daily root canal than worry about Ted undermining or overshadowing him, Trump takes up too much oxygen to worry about it.
To some extent, this works in reverse, with Cruz using Trump delegates to get over the top. The difference is Trump isn’t likely to want VP or a cabinet job and would be a big problem on the fall campaign trail.
Cruz also has a hope of convincing some of his GOP detractors he’s the lesser of two evils. While many would prefer Rubio to Cruz, they’d prefer Ted to Trump.
Cruz has plenty of reason to stay on the good side of Trump voters and The Donald himself. But Trump NEEDS Cruz.
The alpha in this marriage of convenience isn’t who we all thought it was.