April 28, 2016
Let’s begin by stipulating that if Donald Trump wins Indiana, we don’t have much to talk about except the fall contest against Hillary Clinton. Even if Ted Cruz pulls off a recovery/upset in the Hoosier State on Tuesday, Trump is still the favorite for the nomination, but it’s a definite prerequisite for Ted.
So Cruz needs to win. Great. Then what?
We can make some other assumptions. Though being definitive about anything in 2016 is dangerous, I think the following points are (mostly) safe:
If Trump gets to 1150 earned delegates, you can assume he wins on the first ballot.
Perhaps the number is even lower, closer to 1100. The majority of officially uncommitted Pennsylvania delagates are either pro-Trump or have committed to supporting the winner of their congressional district or the statewide champ. The Donald won every county, every district. He won Pennsylvania by 35 points. Figure they won’t try to back out, at least not on a first ballot.
Conservatively, this gives Trump 35 to 40 delegates beyond the officially earned total. There’s no way he doesn’t find another 40 to 50, especially if Cruz is hundreds behind him. When Marco Rubio is publicly saying it’s unreasonable to take the nomination from Trump if he gets real close, and reaffirms that he would vote for him over Hillary, it’s a clear signal.
This isn’t a matter of minimizing the damage in places like Oregon and Washington, and hoping Trump doesn’t win by too much in California and Cruz and Kasich can pull some congressional districts away from him. Right now, Trump has won about two thirds of the primaries and caucuses. Barring a shift in that ratio, the justification gets real hard for uncommitted delegates in states and districts where Trump won handily.
Cruz has done an excellent job rounding up partisans and preparing for a second or third ballot. But the people who will determine whether it gets to a second ballot are not all Cruz people. They’re RNC folks, not grass roots state organizers.
The second group might go to the wall to keep this from Trump. The first won’t, especially for Ted, especially if it’s very close and Trumpists are sure to go nuts, particularly if Cruz isn’t even winning consistently down the stretch.
Non-Trump candidates need to win out except for West Virginia and New Jersey.
Winning matters. Just ask the John Kasich bandwagon. While it’s quite possible that Trump is the worst possible candidate against Hillary Clinton, it’s hard to convince voters that candidates who can’t stop The Donald will stop Hillary. The pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters are locked in.
The remaining 25-30% who are choosing the nominee are susceptible to thinking about recent results. This is not a new development. We haven’t seen a contested convention for two generations because many undecided/leaning/less passionate/more conflicted voters often/always opt for the front runner as the race continues.
It’s natural to wonder why a candidate continues to lose if they’re supposedly so wonderful. If you’re Ted Cruz and not the most likeable politician ever, too conservative for some, and hated by your colleagues (John Boehner recently called him Luicfer in front of a group at Stanford), winning is important.
It validates the idea that his good points outweigh the bad, or at least that he’s less of a liability than Trump (for those fishing for the lesser of two evils.) Trump will win West Virginia and New Jersey. He’ll win them easily. Neither Cruz nor Kasich will put resources into those states, nor should they, beyond what Cruz will do to try to snag a few delegates out of the convoluted West Virginia process.
The Donald will break 50% easily in both places, likely at least 60-65%. He’s going to wind up with at least 80 delegates between the two. Even assuming Cruz can win California, Trump will still pull plenty of delegates. If he wins anywhere beyond West Virginia and New Jersey, it creates both a math problem and a narrative issue.
Cruz and #NeverTrump can argue that from the time Carly Fiorina joined the Cruz pseudo-ticket and Republican voters completely understood that Trump was this close to winning the nomination, The Donald only won the two states that overwhelmingly favored him. That’s the equivalent of Cruz winning Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana, but nowhere else.
Nobody is arguing that some states prefer Cruz and some Trump. The reason Trump is winning are almost all the more neutral states going his way. In order to overthrow the plurality vote and delegate winner, Cruz needs to take a couple places you wouldn’t expect. Otherwise there’s no claim voters have changed their minds.
The states in question are Oregon (5/17), Washington (5/24), California (6/7) and New Mexico (6/7). Cruz HAS to win Washington and California. Either Kasich finally steps up and get it done in Oregon and New Mexico, or Cruz wins despite ceding the states to Kasich.
Neither are natural Trump states. At best they’re neutral for him. If our less decided group of voters decides against him, having two opposing candidates is no excuse. It would keep The Donald’s vote share to 35-38%. Unless Cruz and Kasich split the remaining 62-65% exactly down the middle, one of them would best him.
If Trump were to hit 42-45% it means the extra candidate didn’t make much difference and voters decided not to block him from the nomination. Both states are highly proportional, so it wouldn’t effect the delegate race much, but it would remove the justification for abandoning Trump.
Maps and acreage matter.
We don’t pick nominees by the amount of land they win. Delegates are assigned by population (with adjustments for how well the party does in presidential elections), not by state size. It’s not like Alaska has more delegates than Massachusetts.
But those maps we see on primary nights do have some influence. Right now, Trump has solid coverage throughout the Deep South and Northeast. Once he wins West Virginia, he will have every state east of the Mississippi except Wisconsin, Maine, Ohio and Indiana (assuming Cruz wins it.)
Cruz is doing very well on the western side of the map. If Trump wins the Pacific Coast states in addition to his previous victories in Nevada and Arizona, he’s the lead candidate for the whole country except the Great Plains and Intermountain West.
Again, very hard to stop a candidate who is competitive almost everywhere in the country and dominant in some places. If Cruz (and perhaps Kasich) can prevent Trump from coloring anything else on the map his color aside from West Virginia and New Jersey, where he already has the rest of the area, more than half of the country (by area) would show up in a non-Trump (mostly Cruz) color.
Sounds dumb, but it’s an easier sell. Cruz completely struck out in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic. He can’t fall short on the West Coast too. That reinforces the idea he has a limited audience. Why upset Trumpists for someone with no range?
Cruz needs to poll better against Hillary.
If you combined Kasich’s general election poll numbers with Cruz’s primary results, you’d have a winner. It’s hard to make the case for someone who has lost 49 of 50 contests, with the one exception being his home state. It’s difficult for Cruz to run on electability when he’s at best running even against Clinton.
If Hillary is as unpopular as the numbers are indicating and if avoiding Trump’s horrible favorability rating with non-Republican women is the key to victory. If Cruz is not too conservative to win in November, the Carly choice should show up in the numbers. If he’s viable, if she’s a good pick for November, not just Indiana in May, we should see a shift.
Instead of Cruz running even to a couple points behind Hillary, we should see him even to a few points ahead. He should lead in key swing states, with Hillary keeping it close by running up huge margins in places like New York and California that aren’t competitive anyway.
Wavering delegates need clear evidence Ted can close the deal. He’s already committed himself to a running mate, so it’s not like he can swap in Susana Martinez or Nikki Haley if it turns out general election voters are saying Fiorina’s conservatism is more of an obstacle than her gender is a benefit.
Carly is an enthusiastic Hillary brasher. Her willingness to go at Clinton was a big part of her pitch as a presidential candidate and a reason why some/many thought she’d make sense as a Veep candidate. If there’s something to this, she’ll spend much of the next month going after Clinton and if it works the polling will reflect it.
If there’s no evidence, Cruz won’t pull the necessary delegates. He also won’t pull enough undecided voters in places like Washington and California in order to win those states and give the delegates something to think about.
So Cruz needs several things to come together in order to have a chance. If you take a strictly mathematical approach to the probability, he’s screwed. Each are less than a 50/50 proposition. Multiply them out and his odds are a couple/few percent, and that’s if he wins Indiana.
His chances are better than that (though Trump would never trade places.) These items can create a virtuous cycle. If Cruz wins Indiana it means Trump didn’t get many voters beyond his base. That means Fiorina made a difference and some voters got cold feet when they realized they could effectively nominate Trump with their vote.
It would mean he’s at least partway to getting the support he needs to win on the West Coast. Still a long way to go, but actual progress. The daunting math ensures Cruz would realize he needs to continue to execute his two-minute drill, remembering he needs a touchdown, two point conversion, an onside kick recovery and another touchdown with another two point conversion.
That’s what Cruz is up against. He has the ball with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter. An Indiana win is the first touchdown. The good news is the analogy means reaching a second ballot at the convention is the equivalent of winning the coin flip at the start of overtime with the other team losing their best two defenders on the final play of regulation.
Because of his work at state conventions, Cruz already knows he’s got a huge edge if he can just get to overtime. The above scenario happens at least once or twice every season in the NFL, without the foreknowledge of the coin flip.
Ted needs to channel his inner Joe Montana immediately and hope like hell Carly is Dwight Clark, John Taylor or Jerry Rice (If under the age of 35-40, insert Tom Brady/Rob Gronkowski, but peak Montana is still the guy I’d want running my team in this situation.)
NOTE: After Cruz referred to the basketball “ring” the other day in Indiana, I figured a football analogy was safer.