March 18, 2016
March 15 went very, very well for Donald Trump. Sure, he’d have loved to take all 5 contests and knock John Kasich and Marco Rubio out on the same night. It might have qualified as the best multi-contest night in modern primary history.
It would have qualified as the one achievement big enough even The Donald couldn’t adequately brag about it. He got pretty close though. Holding a sitting senator to a single county in Florida is pretty, pretty, pretty yuge.
He beat Rubio by 18 points statewide, despite giving up 40 points on Marco’s home turf of Dade County, the most populous in the state. Significant as that was, preventing Ted Cruz from winning anywhere was the bigger deal.
Ohio going to Kasich means #NeverTrump still has a shot to keep the front runner short of 1237 delegates going in to the convention. It doesn’t guarantee finding a plausible alternative.
Cruz has two issues. He needs to keep Trump to something under 1100 or so delegates, while also staying far ahead of Kasich. It’s not like any lurking establishment conspirators are in love with Ted. If he’s the only plausible alternative he can get nominated, but if he only wins a couple/few more times the rest of the way, he can’t.
That brings us to Arizona one of two GOP contests on the 22nd. We’re lacking any current data. It’s old enough, Ben Carson led the last poll taken. Trump is the presumed front runner. Betting markets have him heavily favored.
Cruz has zero non-caucus victories in states that don’t border Texas. This is a primary. But Rubio is gone, and he needs to win a primary somewhere if he’s going to get nominated. Losing Missouri was a bad sign for expanding his geography, but there’s a key difference.
That was an open primary. This one is closed. Cruz did beat Trump among registered Republicans in Missouri. He came close in North Carolina, and Rubio was still holding a few possible supporters.
Unlike Illinois, Cruz is clearly the non-Trump alternative. A Kasich loyalist might have reason to stick with him, but anyone from the #NeverTrump crowd is going with Ted.
Simply put, this is an absolute must win for Cruz. He can compete in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania better than you might think he can, but if he loses Arizona, he’ll lose there too. Here it’s mostly a two-person contest with Trump, there Kasich joins the fun.
If he can’t beat Trump in Arizona, he’s not going to best him in California or Washington. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are out of the question under the best of circumstances.
With that settled, what else do we need to look for on Tuesday?
If Cruz loses Utah, he will definitely fail in Arizona. Mike Lee is the most important GOP endorsement in the state. He held off until last week, not wanting to decide between Senate colleagues Cruz and Rubio until one was mostly cooked.
As such, last week was a safe time for him to choose. Trump can’t say Cruz doesn’t have the support of any of his peers anymore. Plenty of Rubio endorsers may follow, but this one didn’t endorse anyone else first.
If there’s one place in the country where Trump antagonist Mitt Romney is still widely respected, it’s here. Before Mitt weighed in, The Donald failed to break 20% in the single January poll and only February survey.
Cruz led him in both. Rubio was ahead of the whole pack in February. None of this indicates a Trump victory. Also it’s a caucus, only open to Republicans and Independents. No Democrat crossovers to save Trump.
We’ve previously noted that Cruz does best in states that Ross Perot did particularly well in during his 1992 effort. He’s already won the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th best Perot states. Utah is third best.
This is a solidly Republican state, one of the couple most GOP friendly in the nation. But not everyone is wildly conservative. Jon Huntsman got elected here twice. Orrin Hatch has served infinity terms in the Senate.
Kasich barely registered in the two previous surveys, but Trump + Cruz + Carson combined for less than 50%. That indicates there’s at least some space for him. I’m not sure that backing out of the Trump-free debate for Monday helps here, but Kasich did have a full day of town halls scheduled for today (subject to change of course.)
If Cruz is on track for a good day, he should at least threaten to clear 50%. He should get declared the winner the minute the first returns are released. It’s one of his very best remaining states on the board.
Meanwhile, it’s a chance for Kasich to finish ahead of Trump. This isn’t the governor’s big target day. That’s April 5 in Wisconsin. But if he at least registers in Arizona and finishes second in Utah, it counts as an over-perform, never a bad thing.
If Trump winds up second in Arizona, and third here, it creates an uncomfortable narrative, as nobody else votes for two full weeks. Given his history, this virtually guarantees a massive stunt soon after in an attempt to reclaim the news and divert attention from Cruz.
We know Trump partisans would respond very favorably to whatever he might come up with, however incendiary. However, Wisconsin isn’t a prime Trump location. If he drives away leaners, Cruz or Kasich will win, continuing the cycle. He’d then have two more empty weeks until New York votes.
While Utah is a potential pitfall for Trump, Arizona is an opportunity. If he wins here, safely clearing 40% again in a three-candidate race, nobody is going to care what Cruz did in a caucus.
Trump will say Cruz can’t win primaries and he’ll be right. He’ll say it doesn’t matter if it’s Republican-only, and he’ll be right. Unless Cruz finishes ahead by 30 points in Utah, and Arizona winds up as close as Missouri, a Trump victory means Kasich is the best way to stop him going forward.
There just aren’t any better opportunities for Cruz for the next several weeks. If he compounds the problem by whining about Kasich’s presence, all the more so.
As for the intrepid Ohioan, his result here is of some interest. He’s wound up in the 8 to 12 percent range in states he’s not competing in. Rubio was regularly trailing a couple points behind him.
Do Trump and Cruz divide 85-90% of the votes, or does Kasich pull 20%? His result here represents his floor. 20 is closer to the 35 to 40 he’ll need elsewhere than 10 is.
If he finishes a distant third in Utah and an absurdly distant third in Arizona, he has a major credibility gap to make up in Wisconsin and only two weeks to do it.
There aren’t a ton of GOP delegates at stake on Tuesday, but plenty of pride, narrative, and positioning.