Last night’s results in the Republican primaries demonstrated the challenge the party faces in stopping Trump. Even with the loss in Ohio he gained significant ground. At this point it seems that only a collaborative strategy can stop him from seizing the nomination.
So why is Ted Cruz resisting such a strategy? It looks like he may have already written off this election and started to position himself for 2020.
Here’s where we are so far.
Once the dust settles from last night’s count it looks like Trump will have about 708 of the 1489 delegates assigned so far, about 48%. There are 983 delegates remaining to be assigned. Trump needs 54% of them to amass a delegate majority.
The problem going forward is that nearly all of the remaining contests are winner take all by congressional district, along with a few absolute winner take all states. That means Trump can potentially win large delegate sweeps with tiny margins of victory. Last night’s results in Missouri are an example of this. On March 15th Trump won almost 58% of the available delegates while earning barely over a third of the vote.
Most remaining contests are winner take all by congressional district, including the largest one, California (6/7). We still have contests ahead in Trump-friendly geographies like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. If one candidate could just gain five or six points on Trump, they could very nearly run the table on him in remaining races. But there’s a problem.
Making this a two-man race doesn’t actually help because neither of the remaining two candidates can be successful nationwide. Each would expect to beat Trump in different regions while losing decisively in others.
In a two-man contest, Cruz could win pretty solidly in places where the Republican Party is dominated by Protestant religious voters, mostly in remaining races in the Far West. Kasich would do better in places where Catholic religious conservatives dominate the party, like the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
If the goal is to stop Trump and play for a convention contest, Kasich and Cruz would have to put aside their differences and divide the map. Rubio recognized this play and told his Ohio supporters to back Kasich, helping to put him over the top. This strategy would probably work, blocking Trump from an outright win and letting the convention decide the nominee.
However Cruz, as usual, is being a real dick about it. He didn’t cooperate with Rubio’s strategy, helping to ruin Florida. Ted Cruz is crazy, but he’s not the stupid kind of crazy. It is beginning to look like he’s playing to be the 2020 nominee. This would make sense for a number of reasons.
First, it is very hard in the GOP to build the kind of national organization it takes to win a nomination. Candidates accomplish this in almost every case by running consecutively (Romney, McCain, Dole, Bush, Reagan, Nixon). One of the reasons this race is so nutty is that there was no decisive second-place finisher in 2012.
Cruz may be looking at the same math as everyone else and deciding that 2016 is a loser for Republicans no matter who gets the nod. If he goes for broke he risks smashing the party, a party that would otherwise treat him as the presumed nominee leading into a much more promising 2020 race. Notice that Cruz has been very careful to say he will endorse anyone who wins the nomination, including Trump.
Cruz may also be calculating that his chances of taking the nomination in a convention contest are not that great. He’s probably the most likely winner of a convention fight out of the guys in the race, but that’s still a very uncertain outcome. Convention delegates could go in dozens of different directions while creating a political atmosphere toxic for the winner.
Plus, the party generally hates him. He might have a fine collection of delegates on the floor, but the party’s remaining brokers will be working hard at a convention to make him a loser. Why contribute to that outcome just to lose in a 2016 General Election?
He may have decided to stay in this race and simply accept the outcome. If Trump comes up a little short Cruz might swing his delegates toward Trump to eliminate any doubt. This also sets up a precedent in favor of a plurality-winner, something Cruz might need badly in a subsequent race. Let Trump blunder into the buzzsaw of the General Election. Cruz can stand removed from the defeat and the party apparatus might still remain sufficiently intact to be useful to him in 2020.
Just speculating, but that seems like the best explanation of Cruz’s position. We’ll see.
***By the way, one caveat emerges when you do the math for the upcoming races. If they play out much like the previous ones and Cruz manages to win Indiana (very doable) and a couple of other smaller states, then California becomes the hinge. Based on that scenario, a Cruz win in California would deny Trump a delegate majority and leave Trump leading Cruz by only about 150 delegates.
That is almost certainly Cruz’s best potential outcome, one that depends on Kasich winning some Congressional Districts in the Northeast. In that situation, Rubio & Kasich’s delegates, if they decided to make a deal, would be enough to give Cruz a decisive and entirely legitimate win on the convention floor. That might also be the play Cruz has in mind.