March 30, 2016
Ted Cruz is leading in Wisconsin. It’s too early to declare it a sure thing for him, but he’s ahead. Three of the four most recent polls have him up. Donald Trump is registering in the low 30s, opening up the possibility Cruz could win by a solid margin and take most of the delegates.
Let’s assume for the moment this holds. Figure the final results are Cruz 43, Trump 33, Kasich 24. Again, it’s not a prediction, but it is an extremely possible outcome. It squares with the just released Marquette University poll.
If this, then what?
Kasich becomes more help to Cruz than hindrance
David Wasserman at FiveThirtyEight broke this down recently. The idea is that many of the remaining delegates are being assigned on a winner-take-all by congressional district basis. Not only are some states more friendly to Cruz than Kasich or vice versa, but almost all CDs are.
While it’s quite possible more Kasich supporters would opt for Cruz over Trump if he were to leave the race, Trump is leading overall and heading into a group of favorable states. Even a 70/30 split favoring Cruz might actually hurt him.
Overall, if the vote shares are 45% Trump, 35% Cruz, 20% Kasich, and you gave Cruz 70 percent, he would still trail by a couple/few points. If anything, this is generous, as some voters might just pass, but you get the idea.
Expecting Cruz to defeat Trump in places like New York and Connecticut is a stretch. It’s unlikely Kasich would win that many districts, but especially in New York, some are so lightly populated with Republicans that the preferences of a few voters could change the outcome.
Anything that keeps Trump south of 1237 delegates without introducing Kasich as a legit competitor for the nomination is good for Cruz. This is not incompatible with Ted currently wishing he would go away.
Until he actually wins Wisconsin, Kasich is still an obstacle. There’s a chance of the two anti-Trumps splitting the non-Donald vote, allowing a very narrow Trump victory. That would almost guarantee him the nomination, clearly a bad outcome for Cruz.
A Kasich victory in Wisconsin, something indicated as possible by a single pollster (Optimus) but not shown in the other data, or the candidate’s schedule, which has him in New York today, is another problem.
It would introduce another option, and at the worst possible time, headed to states which are relatively better for Kasich than Cruz. So today, he should wish Kasich doesn’t exist, but after April 5, after Cruz had proven he could win by a good margin even with a third candidate around, it’s a different story.
We know Trump dives for the gutter when under duress. It’s not just a Cruz campaign talking point. More than specific attacks, he doubles down on attempting (and usually succeeding) to control the media narrative.
Cruz has shown limited ability to get his message out to voters who would prefer to avoid Trump but are not sold on Ted. Almost a full half of GOP primary voters are somewhat to strongly opposed to a Trump nomination. If Cruz had won them over, he’d find himself much closer in polls.
But he hasn’t. Part of it is Cruz. He’s not very likeable. He’s too conservative for some voters. His unpopularity in the Senate is an issue for some. Many of the voters who don’t mind any of the above are with Trump.
By staying more in a specific lane than Marco Rubio, Cruz is still in this while Rubio is at home. It worked to get him to this point. It’s still a tougher slog for him to win over skeptics than for someone more broadly acceptable.
Trump will not allow Cruz to pivot to any version of himself that will make the majority of GOP voters very excited about him. The wife spat is a great example. Cruz didn’t start the fight, but it was portrayed as two candidates sitting in the sandbox throwing dirt at each other.
Events like this will continually prevent Cruz from building a strong, positive message for himself, and doing anything whatsoever to focus on the general election, winning over more moderate voters, or pulling up his polling numbers with the wider electorate.
Any candidate would struggle with these things. Cruz would tend to struggle more than the average candidate. The combination is an impossibility. No candidate in Trump’s position would want his opponent to gain footing and become a consensus choice.
Add unlimited media access and a taste for the jugular and forget it. Trump will throw so much dirt on Cruz that the presence of a third option to pick up disaffected voters is helpful to ensuring The Donald stays south of 1237 delegates.
We’re probably going to a contested convention
If Cruz wins Wisconsin relatively easily, Trump will not likely get to 1237 ahead of Cleveland. It means The Donald hasn’t won over enough of his remaining skeptics and isn’t likely to.
If you were expecting a kinder, gentler, more presidential Trump, forget about it. If he wins Wisconsin, effectively removing Cruz as a realistic nomination prospect, and keeping Kasich in the irrelevancy zone, it’s possible to think of a world in which Trump pivots a bit.
That’s by no means guaranteed. A frightened beyond recognition #NeverTrump squad could easily do enough to keep The Donald plenty inflamed. But there is no way that he does anything other than quadruple down on his existing tactics if it looks like he’s going to fall short of 1237.
That means months of speculation, months of hearing about specific delegates, state conventions, and all sorts of minutia not seen since 1976. Back then, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan fought for uncommitted delegates from sea to shining sea.
This was well before the 24 hour news cycle. It predated CNN, never mind Twitter. Walter Cronkite, the New York Times and Washington Post told us what the news was. The combination of continuing primaries, state-level delegate fights, wall-to-wall coverage, and The Donald will create a maelstrom the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Compounding the drama is the likelihood Trump would finish short of 1237, but well north of 1000. If Kasich were to somehow win Wisconsin, he could actually go on a streak and with some assistance from Cruz, keep Trump far enough away from a majority to cut down on the “I got the most delegates” argument.
There are Trumpists who think he should immediately get the nomination as long as he has one more delegate than anyone else. There are opponents who think it’s feasible to deny him the nomination if he gets stuck at 1236.
The balance of GOP voter opinion, and likely a fair percentage of delegates is somewhere in between. The dividing line is probably 1100 to 1150.
That’s also the point where it becomes a bit harder for Trump to cut a few deals and scrape together the needed quantity between the final primaries on June 7 and the convention several weeks later.
I’ll spare you the state-by-state breakdown until Cruz actually wins on Tuesday, but many paths lead towards this particular purgatory.
If the Marquette poll is correct, the fun has just begun.