April 23, 2016
Donald Trump is better at this than Ted Cruz. Perhaps Ted is the better general election candidate. We’ll never know. They can’t both win the nomination. Cruz is the stronger delegate harvester. But Trump is far better at winning primary votes.
That is the most important skill. You can’t win on a second ballot if your opponent wins on the first. As we know, Trump is well ahead. A good amount of this advantage came when the field was crowded.
Heading into New York, Trump had approximately 46% of the delegates from 37% of the vote. A couple winner-take-all contests and divided opposition put him ahead. Then he basically swept his home state.
It’s easy to dismiss his results as favorable circumstance and home field advantage. A candidate with a 65 to 70 percent national unfavorable rating is easy to scorn. Without modification, he’s a November grease fire waiting to happen, with Hillary’s toxicity ready to make many wish for a third option.
But he’s still better at winning primary votes than Cruz. It’s because of skill, not just luck. I’m not sure if Cruz is unwilling to shift his focus, incapable, or despite his obvious intelligence, can’t do basic math.
Remember, we have Trumpists (35%), #NeverTrump (40%), and the people who are going to decide this (25%). This is an approximation. You have to combine lots of polling data to get here, but trust me, it’s about right.
That’s a national number. It varies on a state-to-state basis, but the upcoming crucial primary in Indiana should be representative. We finally have a couple polls. So far, they back up the thesis.
Forty is more than 35. The anti-Trump forces are bigger than the always Trump crew. It’s a great reminder The Donald hasn’t come close to unifying the party. The problem is some of that 40% is being held by John Kasich.
There are only a couple reasons someone would prefer the third place candidate. Either they think Cruz is too conservative, especially on social issues, or he’s unelectable, because he won’t appeal to moderates, perhaps because of those social issues.
The last thing he needs to do is sound like a rigid-sounding culture warrior. Anyone looking for that is already with him. Rick Santorum is not going to appear in Terre Haute, IN to deny Cruz the nomination.
Kasich voters live near lots of Democrats. Some disagree with Cruz, others just figure he’s poison because their neighbors hate him. Spending multiple days getting on Trump’s case about North Carolina transgender bathroom access accomplishes two things.
It reminds voters deciding between Kasich and Cruz that they like Kasich better. It reminds voters deciding between Kasich and Trump (part of the group that will pick the nominee) that Trump is socially moderate and capable of pivoting to the center in the fall.
In exchange, Cruz may pick up a few votes among social conservatives torn between Cruz and Trump. Not a good trade. When you are losing; hell, even if you’re winning, you don’t trade two groups of voters for one smaller one.
If Trump takes some from Kasich and Kasich takes some from Cruz and Cruz takes a little from Trump, the short straw goes to Ted. Bad enough, but I understand he couldn’t let it go. Should have. Really should have, but Trump’s called him out for being establishment, so Cruz felt he needed to show he fights for his beliefs.
Combining this with making a big deal about Trump delegate whisperer Paul Manafort telling a group of RNC insiders that his man will now start resembling a sane presidential candidate (i.e. begin playing a new “part”) compounds the mistake.
The people who love Trump are not moveable. You cannot convince them he’s a phony. They hope he’s playing the media, the other candidates, the establishment, whomever so that he can get the nomination, defeat Hillary, and begin fixing the country. His whole purpose is being willing to do whatever it takes to reach his goal.
#NeverTrump voters are what the hashtag indicates. They don’t require more convincing about The Donald. They need to think Cruz is better than Kasich. Flailing away at Trump does not help. If he could get under his skin, rattle him, make him sound irrational, that would earn points. Complaining Trump is inauthentic and socially liberal? Meh.
The biggest problem is the voters who aren’t solidly with Trump, but are willing to consider him hope he’s a phony. They pray he’s capable of playing a new role and evolving over the next few months so that he can win the general election. These voters have their preferred version, different from the current model.
Cruz is reinforcing their hopes about Trump instead of their fears. If there were enough GOP voters who are putting social conservatism first, Ted would have done better in the South. If it didn’t work in Alabama, it’s not going to save him in Indiana.
You only get to lead with one theme. Even Trump, who has far more available bandwidth, sticks to a theme. Leading up to New York it was the rigged primary process. Now it’s go away Ted, you’ve lost. If Cruz is talking about bathrooms and back room conversations, he’s going to waste his last chance.
Let’s try this one more time:
He needs to focus his best lines on Hillary, not Trump. He needs to talk about jobs, not bathrooms. He needs to concentrate on the voters who are considering him or leaning towards Kasich. Remember, even social conservatives choosing between Trump and Cruz want to see Ted as a winner if they’re going to vote for him.
Cruz is better on policy details. If he can dive a little deeper into the economy, as he has in his best debate performances, it will help him with all available voter groups. If he moves in this direction, he can slam the current administration for youth unemployment rates, African American unemployment rates, lack of opportunity for Millennials without a college degree or professional credentials.
A few days of that and he might actually get to discuss the topic in an interview. If he does Sunday shows tomorrow, he’ll deal with questions about bathrooms and Trump getting to 1237 delegates before the convention. Neither of those are good topics for Ted. It’s well beyond the optimum time for the pivot, but better way too late than never.
The Real Clear Politics average has him down by 7 in Indiana. Lots of time there over the next 10 days and plenty of focus on the economy and he can close the gap. Trump is around 40% in the polls there, so Cruz only needs to peel a few voters away and consolidate most of the opposition.
Will he? Don’t bet on it.