April 2, 2016
Donald Trump is about to go two weeks without an election. He’s looking likely to enter that stretch with a loss in the Wisconsin primary. His last win was March 22. It’s similar to the problem facing Hillary Clinton, but he lacks her mathematical hammerlock and resolute support of insiders.
As we’ve known for months, the campaign is in historically uncharted waters. Recent precedent doesn’t apply. Trump and his competitors are hurriedly rustling up survivors of the contested 1976 GOP convention to help them navigate an increasingly messy situation.
Make no mistake. Trump isn’t anywhere near defeated yet. He still holds a sizable delegate edge on Ted Cruz and is the only candidate with a chance of getting to 1237 by the time states are done voting on June 7. Should he win Wisconsin, stopping him will prove very difficult.
But a loss, seen as more than 90% likely by FiveThirtyEight based on current data, changes the equation. Trump is dependent on a bandwagon effect to pull the voters who aren’t part of his core and aren’t #NeverTrump. When he lost Iowa, his poll numbers in Super Tuesday states noticeably dipped.
Before that became a problem, he won in New Hampshire. The big victory gave him a boost in South Carolina, which helped build his margin in Nevada. By the time Super Tuesday happened, the train was barreling downhill.
Since Iowa, each election night has resulted in a Trump split, or overwhelming victory. His only shutouts were when the stakes were so minor the cable networks didn’t bother to cover the results (D.C., Puerto Rico.) Nothing helps winning like winning.
Before anyone started voting, he had his polling victories. His unprecedented habit of reading off poll results at each rally and in most interviews worked. While he naturally chose the most favorable surveys, he really was leading almost everywhere, almost always.
When Ben Carson reached polling parity, even moving a little ahead, Trump struck. When Cruz got close, Trump attacked, ending their months of detente. When polls were the measure, he didn’t need to wait for a specific voting day to show he’d restored order. The minute his polling edge returned, he could shout it from the mountaintops.
For the most part, he concentrated on his results against other Republicans. But sometimes he’d mention how he was doing against Hillary. Trump never regularly bested her in head-to-head matchups, but in the fall he did sometimes find himself ahead. That gave him enough to go on.
Until the last few weeks, even when he was trailing, it wasn’t by that much. Many observers assumed he would have a difficult go in a general election. The betting markets agreed, but it wasn’t based on a nasty polling deficit. Rather, they theorized his poor favorability ratings with women and Hispanics would make the math tough.
It was still a long way away, and as John Kasich is discovering now, if you want to get points for being more electable than your opponent(s), it helps if you beat them regularly in primaries. Marco Rubio always did well in polls against Hillary too.
The combination of polling numbers, actual primary wins, a delegate lead, and being able to manipulate the news cycle has brought Trump an extremely long way.
Now the ground has shifted a bit. Part of this is how close he is to capturing the nomination. It’s real now. Those firmly against him now realize they may have to choose between stopping Trump and keeping Trumpists inside the tent.
If you’re willing to consider a third party conservative, just to give at risk senators someone to run with instead of Trump, you’re definitely ok with taking the nomination from him, regardless of the fallout.
Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and Mitt Romney haven’t decided to support Cruz because they like him, think he would make a good president, or are convinced he can defeat Hillary. He’s serving as a placeholder.
It’s possible Cruz can turn this begrudging tepid support into a nomination, but it clearly shows Trump is facing increased resistance. He’s benefitted from the inability of any opponent to consolidate support. That’s still a problem, but Trump isn’t winning converts.
His path to stay in striking range of a first ballot win is as follows:
Win New York by a resounding margin
If Trump gets 55 to 60 percent of the vote in his home state, he will have washed off the stink of a Wisconsin defeat, shown he is more popular in his home than Kasich or Cruz are in theirs, and won virtually all of the available delegates.
Sweep the five April 26 primaries
This would give him momentum heading into Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Trump is currently favored in each of these contests. With the exception of Pennsylvania, which leaves 54 delegates uncommitted, it’s winner-take-all by congressional district and/or statewide.
If Trump is bruised, if he’s losing delegates at the congressional district level, or Cruz or Kasich can consolidate #NeverTrump support in Pennsylvania, wavering voters in upcoming contests have reason to think he hasn’t earned the nomination yet. Frisky delegates have reason to hope for a second ballot.
Win the West Coast primaries
Indiana looks competitive. Trump will win West Virginia easily. Cruz should have the edge in Nebraska and later on in Montana and South Dakota. The largest block of remaining delegates is on the Coast. Trump victories in Washington, Oregon and California, particularly if he wins the vast majority of Golden State congressional districts, would mean he’s dominated every part of the map aside from the Intermountain West/Great Plains.
It might not get Trump to 1237, but assuming he won in New Jersey, it would be close. Cruz would find himself very far behind, Kasich an asterisk. If a few uncommitted delegates wanted to avoid a convention from hell, he could easily close the deal before anyone gets to Cleveland.
Once New York votes on the 19th, we go back to having at least one contest every several days. Since the first batch are favorable to Trump, he has the chance to re-establish momentum. His greatest danger is the time between Wisconsin and New York.
During the Apollo missions to the moon, it was necessary to land the lunar module on the “light side,” the side facing the sun for the duration of their stay (a lunar day is 29 earth days) to maintain communications contact with the satellites in existence at the time.
As a result, the dark side wasn’t explored. While in lunar orbit, the astronauts would lose communication with NASA while on that side of the moon. Both during the first missions and while trying to salvage Apollo 13, this created plenty of nervousness in Houston.
This is what the Trump campaign is facing over the next couple of weeks, assuming they don’t win Wisconsin. They’ll need to adjust to doing without most of their normal mechanisms for keeping control of the narrative.
He wouldn’t have a win to use as a trampoline. Voters and media are increasingly becoming more interested in his numbers against Hillary than national polls on the GOP side. Increased talk about convention tactics and ways Trump could get stopped won’t make him look like a winner to uncertain voters.
Does he attempt a more conciliatory tone, trying to act more presidential? Or does he quadruple down on his existing tactics, making sure to keep his core supporters fired up. Either way, he’ll have two weeks without voting results to show him if he’s on the right track.
Drawing less than 50% of the vote in New York would show definite weakness and a chance at losing one or more of the April 26 contests, so the stakes are high. He’s sure to win at home, but margins count.
Assuming Bernie holds on and wins Wisconsin, it looks like he’s making things with Hillary extra interesting. With the next contest on the home turf of the media establishment, it’s very easy for them to commit resources to following the Bern around town.
Sanders-Clinton will draw some attention, particularly if Bernie continues to get under her skin. Republicans are not planning a debate. Trump definitely doesn’t want to give his opponents a chance to take shots. Democrats are discussing one.
If they have one, it will draw some attention. If Hillary continues to avoid one, the debate over the lack of debate will take some oxygen too. Will Trump re-enter the fray with Hillary in an attempt to win points and attention for himself? Quite possibly.
No matter what, the Trump we’ve followed for almost a year will exit the race if he loses April 5, to be replaced with whatever we see on April 19. This two week period will likely determine if he wins on the first ballot, or loses thereafter.