April 20, 2016
I seem to remember everyone talking about Ted Cruz having momentum. I think I recall many assuming the convention would go to a second ballot, if not a third, fourth or fifth. How quickly things change. Or do they?
It’s fun to get caught up in the twists and turns of the race. It feels like things are constantly evolving. We want to believe individual decisions, outcomes of particular primaries or caucuses, perhaps an ad here or there have made a big difference.
I’m not saying it absolutely doesn’t matter what anyone does, but the contest got awfully locked in months ago and appears about where it always was. The same is true on the Democratic side. Sanders wins where he should and loses where he should. Neither he nor Hillary have won over many voters who leaned towards the other.
Same thing here. Donald Trump has led the GOP race since July. He’s held a full third of primary voters in his palm since Paris and San Bernardino. Ted Cruz separated himself as the leading challenger in December. He reached 20% in national polls. He’s still in the 20s.
Leaving aside individual surveys and focusing on the overall trend, Trump has led Cruz by a sizable margin the whole time. Sometimes the gap is 15 to 20 points, sometimes 5 to 10, but it really hasn’t measurably changed.
For the better part of nine months, about two thirds of GOP voters have preferred some form of outsider candidate. The remainder have floated around between any establishment-friendly choice still standing. So why is there so much variation in the individual primary and caucus results?
Terrain. Cruz does better in caucus states because he’s strongest with conservative activists. It helps him in these delegate battles you hear about too. He’s strongest in places where Ross Perot did well in 1992. Though he often sounds like he’s speaking to evangelicals, the percentage of very conservative voters is more important.
There are two types of Trump voter. You may first picture a 52-year-old white guy in West Virginia who lost his job at the mine and is pissed off about the world in general. He’s definitely for Trump. You don’t get his amount of support without a wider range though.
He’s winning plenty of upscale voters from more moderate counties, congressional districts and states. They are more than happy he’s less than consistent about social issues and hasn’t identified as a conservative since he was in grade school. They are why Trump is going further than Pat Buchanan ever dreamed of.
Then there’s John Kasich. Remember him? He’s not a good candidate. Perhaps the constant losing gave this away. When this was a big field, he was the 9th or 10th guy to qualify for the main debates. When there were only 5 candidates, he regularly finished fifth, sometimes fourth.
Now there are three and he’s the only candidate not to win after March 15. He’s yet to finish within 30 points of the winner. Actually, it’s closer to 35. He has the smallest base of support among the three. It’s the 15% of voters who absolutely abhor both Trump and Cruz.
In New York, that number is larger, so he got a bigger percentage. He’s yet to seem viable enough for anyone who is at least sorta ok with the others to pick him. Assuming you’re on board with the breakdown, it’s time to apply it going forward.
We know about 70 percent of voters are completely locked in. It’s very consistent from poll to poll, and matches what actually happens when people vote. In a neutral state, about half of these are Trump’s and Cruz has more of the remainder than Kasich.
About 10 percent of voters are really undecided. Another 20 percent lean towards a candidate and are fairly evenly distributed. That’s why national polls often show something like this:
Trump Low 40s
Cruz High 20s/low 30s
Kasich Low 20s
Few undecided voters are open to all three candidates. Some pick between Trump and Cruz. They want an outsider. They prefer Ted’s conservatism, but The Donald’s authenticity/balls. Kasich is off limits for them.
Then there’s the Trump or Kasich group. These voters are moderate. Cruz is too conservative for them. They’d like an outsider, but Trump scares them a bit. Or they’d like more of an establishment type, but Kasich seems like a loser, or too folksy, or just unable to get nominated. They want to stop Ted and will vote accordingly.
Finally, we have Kasich or Cruz, otherwise known as the #NeverTrump group. Most have a preference between the two based on preferring more of an insurgent as opposed to an insider, or more of a conservative as opposed to a semi-moderate.
They’ll all move in the same direction if it looks like Trump is beatable in their state. That’s what happened in Wisconsin. It was an average at best state for Trump, and every possible #NeverTrump vote went to Cruz. Kasich was left with only those who can’t stand the other two.
New York broke for Trump at the end. Both Trump/Cruz and Trump/Kasich voters picked The Donald. His existing base was already higher than average. Beyond being his home state, it had a good mix of voters he does well with anywhere.
Kasich/Cruz (#NeverTrump) voters broke for Kasich. That’s how you got the final result. You can play the same game with the Utah results. It was the reverse of what happened yesterday.
It’s an unusually bad state for Trump, so his core was much smaller. Cruz/Kasich voters picked Cruz to make sure Trump would lose. Cruz/Trump voters picked Ted. Kasich/Trump voters picked Kasich. That’s how Trump couldn’t even break 20%.
For the 30% of voters who can shift, a combination of momentum and strategic voting are deciding their support. There is more than enough available support to bring Trump to the magic 1237 by the close of business on June 7. If he falls short, he can still easily wind up over 1150, able to close a few deals before the convention.
Or we can wind up with the convention drama many are expecting or hoping for. At this point we need to take it week to week. I can tell you Indiana and California are especially important. The conventional wisdom is correct.
Indiana matters because it’s a neutral playing field. None of the three are at a real advantage or disadvantage compared to their national standing. California has the most delegates. But I don’t want to project either until the previous steps are completed.
For now, that means we focus on the five April 26 states. Trump has the momentum advantage against Kasich and Cruz. Kasich has the momentum advantage against Cruz. Kasich also has the #NeverTrump strategic advantage against Ted.
Cruz also has fewer core supporters than average (except for Pennsylvania which is pretty close to normal.). So he’s starting from a low base, and has momentum and strategy going against him.
Trump has a higher than average base in most of the states (Pennsylvania is closer to normal) and a momentum edge. This is another way of saying that Cruz needs Kasich to step up if he wants a second ballot in Cleveland to win on. The problem is a stronger Kasich hurts Ted’s argument that he’s the only possible anti-Trump.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the individual states in more depth. For now, the main point is Cruz is in trouble. If things go poorly for him on the 26th, Indiana becomes his last stand.