March 29, 2016
For those of us outside Wisconsin, it’s a two-way fight for the GOP nomination. Clips of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz blanket the airwaves, as they attack and defend. In fairness, they are actually talking about a number of other things too, but many of us like a brawl, so most of the clips are combative.
There is a third contestant. His name is John Kasich. You may remember him as the guy who won his home state of Ohio and has yet to repeat the feat on the road. For some reason, finishing fourth in Arizona, behind a candidate no longer in the race, is causing the political class to ignore or scorn him.
Kasich is not spectacularly presidential. He rambles. He jabs at the air weirdly while speaking. He slouches and shambles. In the Year of Bernie, this isn’t a problem in and of itself.
However, Sanders won at least 70% of the vote in five contests within five days. Kasich has broken 30% three times out of more than 30 elections. Mississippi didn’t feel the Bern. Neither did Alabama. They were his worst states. Sanders still did better there than Kasich.
For all these reasons, along with simple delegate math, it’s very easy to dismiss the governor as a political Don Quixote with a bad haircut. In Utah, Mitt Romney said a vote for Kasich was a vote for Trump, the idea being he had no chance, so support Ted Cruz.
In Utah this was very accurate. Kasich had no chance of winning. Voters looking to stop The Donald were best served by going all in on Cruz. The Club for Growth and others are suggesting the same in Wisconsin.
Governor, and ex-candidate Scott Walker endorsed Cruz today, and is likely to spend the next week telling his constituents to rally around Ted as the only hope of stopping Trump. Understandable. Walker is a strong conservative and Cruz has the second most delegates.
The endorsement will provide a media boost for Cruz today and increase the perception this is a two person race. A look at the Real Clear Politics polling average backs this up too:
A two-person fight, right?
If the numbers say there are two candidates with a chance to win and the governor thinks there are two candidates with a chance to win, and the media thinks the same, then why are we even discussing this?
A few reasons. First, neither Trump, nor Cruz have closed the deal yet. You need 35 to 40 percent of the vote to win a three person contest. Cruz hit 36% in polling done by Emerson College and for the Washington Free Beacon.
That puts him right on the line. He certainly can win, and in most states, Cruz closes pretty well. As of this morning, based on current information, FiveThirtyEight gives him a 69% chance of winning Wisconsin.
That’s based on their polls-plus forecast, where they use the available numbers and make some adjustments and projections accordingly. Looking only at the polls, Trump is their favorite, with a 48% chance of victory.
The Donald is on the line too. While he’s led more polls than any other candidate, he’s reached 35% once, the only time his number exceeded 31%. Definitely a contender, but certainly not a sure thing.
If these two combine for numbers in the mid-60s, there’s room for Kasich to join them as an equal. It’s just as logical as the idea he’s an also-ran. Normal political wisdom is when two candidates slug it out in a three person race, it’s that third candidate who benefits.
With many Wisconsinites having qualms about Trump and many Republicans not completely ready to buy in to Cruz, the thought of voters finding a home elsewhere isn’t ridiculous. Kasich is being held back by the perception (based on plenty of voting reality) that he’s an electoral loser.
The same is true for Cruz. Many voters will buy in as soon as he wins somewhere like Wisconsin, proving he can compete outside the Mountain West and Plains states he’s done well in. The problem is he needs a few of those voters to win Wisconsin.
There’s some data to back up my assertion. Real Clear doesn’t include polling from Optimus Consulting, who is taking a regular look at Wisconsin. FiveThirtyEight uses them as part of their projections, and they pay plenty of attention to their inputs, so if it’s good enough for them, I’m not going to argue.
Between 3/22 and 3/24 they found:
That’s a dead heat, with enough undecided voters to put any of the candidates over the top. Already interesting enough, but Optimus has a newer poll that FiveThirtyEight hasn’t posted yet.
Same order, but 29/27/25 now. If there is any merit to what they are finding, it reinforces the idea anything can happen over the final week. Almost 20 percent of voters are now officially undecided, with a few others presumably leaning.
Tonight CNN hosts one of their semi-regular forums. It appears Trump has put the kibosh on further official debates, but he was willing to participate in the town hall format. Ratings for debates are lower than they were in August. Fewer people watch these than debates.
But it’s still one of the few formats that allow voters to hear candidates for more than a few minutes at a time. Even the Sunday shows normally limit appearances to 5 to 7 minutes, and the majority of voters don’t tune in to those anyway.
If there is ever a time a semi-attentive voter will watch these guys, it’s in the week before they go to the polls. The pregame coverage will focus on Trump and Cruz, the postgame comments as well. In between, Kasich will get his 45 minutes or so.
It’s not a guarantee he’ll do well. All the issues about rambling and being un-presidential don’t go away just because the cameras finally located him again. I’ll guarantee he gets a moderator question about his viability before the audience begins their part.
However, a strong, serious performance on a range of issues, where he actually keeps his answers fairly tight can go a long way towards making Kasich the lead anti-Trump coming out of Wisconsin.
The rest of the calendar is more favorable to Kasich than Cruz. In a world where they are somewhat equally strong, he should have an easier time winning delegates and states. That only happens if Kasich wins Wisconsin.
If Cruz does, the anti-Trump voters consolidate around him. Kasich can’t lose to Cruz in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin and claim he has any reason to exist except to try to siphon delegates from Trump in certain blue districts in blue states.
If Trump wins, we’re done here. The others can try to keep him 30 to 50 delegates short of 1237 and cross their fingers, but it won’t work. He’ll likely get there by the end of voting, and find the few missing delegates if he doesn’t.
We need a little more polling to have a better idea of where things stand in Wisconsin. I’d imagine most national pollsters who have surveyed the majority of key primaries and caucuses will have numbers up before the weekend.
Just because Optimus thinks this is a three-way race doesn’t mean it is, but the inability of Trump or Cruz to hit 40% in any other poll indicates they are probably on to something. Kasich does far better when he spends considerable time on the ground, which he’s doing here.
Regardless of what you’re hearing or reading elsewhere, there are three possibilities in Wisconsin next Tuesday, not two.