Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cruz's Gambit

We have a Republican presidential primary coming up on Tuesday along with two caucuses (Utah and American Samoa) — then two weeks until the next time voters go to the polls. Time is short — almost two–thirds of the states have been heard from now.

I hear a lot of talk of a contested convention, but there has only been one convention in my lifetime — the 1976 Republican convention — that went down to the wire. I have my doubts that this year's convention will be the second almost–contested convention in my lifetime.

See, the thing is that Donald Trump's candidacy is the kind of phenomenon that political observers have rarely seen. They function in a world of conventional wisdom, but what is happening is spinning conventional wisdom on its ear. In 1976 conventional wisdom eventually won out, and President Gerald Ford defeated challenger (outsider?) Ronald Reagan.

Trump reminds me more of Ross Perot in 1992 — a wealthy man who promised to run government efficiently, like a well–run business. Trump has gone far beyond where Perot ever did, perhaps because he has pursued the presidency through an established party rather than seeking the office as an independent.

Trump also reminds me, in a way, of Barack Obama eight years ago. Trump is not the first outsider businessman to seek the presidency, just as Obama was not the first black man to seek the presidency. But Obama capitalized on and exceeded the achievements of his predecessors, and Trump appears poised to exceed Perot's achievements as well.

It's easy to forget from the perspective of 2016 what Perot achieved in the general election of 1992. He didn't carry any states, but he received nearly 19% of the national popular vote.

On the Republican side it is, essentially, down to two candidates, Trump and Ted Cruz. There is a third candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but he is already mathematically eliminated from a first–ballot nomination even if he runs the table the rest of the way in this new winner–take–all delegate environment. He is no longer focused on winning the nomination on the first ballot, when most delegates are committed to certain candidates by the voters of their states. He is looking beyond that.

However, with Marco Rubio out of the picture, Cruz appears to believe he has a chance to inflict some damage on Trump and, if not secure enough delegates going into the convention to assure himself of the nomination, have enough delegates committed to him to prevent Trump from winning the nomination on the first ballot.

Cruz has been talking about how well he has performed in closed primaries — primaries held in states where voters are required to declare their party affiliation upon registering and vote in only that party's primaries. And that's true.

But there are two sides to this coin.

Cruz contends he is the best choice to be a standard bearer for Republicans because he has outperformed Trump in primaries in which only registered Republicans can participate.

Trump has performed better in the open primaries where voters can declare in which party's primary they want to participate, and he has been drawing support from Democrats and independents. Some have been motivated by a desire to throw a wrench into the works, but others have been motivated by genuine support for Trump. Consequently, Trump can argue — with at least some validity — that his victories in the open primaries demonstrate his appeal for the broader electorate in the general election.

This phase of the electoral calendar may tell us who is right — or, at least, whose case makes the most sense to Republican voters.

The primary on Tuesday is being held in Arizona; it's a closed primary that will award all 58 of its delegates to whoever finishes first. Based on Cruz's logic, he should do well there, right? Well, the latest Merrill Poll, released just a few days ago, found the winner is likely to be Trump.

Kasich's strategy is different. He knows he can't win the nomination on the first ballot so his objective is to prevent Trump from reaching the magic number and force the Republican nominating process to a second ballot for the first time since 1948. If Cruz can win in the West, Kasich will be trying to win in the East — in places like Pennsylvania and New York.

Call it a triangulation theory. It's also a longshot, at least at this stage of the race. Trump is more than halfway to the number of committed delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot.

The New York primary is a closed primary that will be held on April 19. According to the Emerson Poll that was released Friday, Trump has a decisive lead over Cruz there. Kasich is no help; he barely drew 1% in the poll. New York is a winner–take–most primary, which most likely means Trump will win about 80 or 85 of the state's 95 delegates.

Pennsylvania's winner–take–all primary is a week later — on April 26. The most recent survey I have seen from Pennsylvania was published about a week and a half ago. It was Harper Polling's survey, and it showed Trump with a 2–to–1 lead over Marco Rubio, who suspended his campaign after losing in Florida about a week after Harper's poll results were published. Unless something dramatic happens, Trump seems well on his way to winning Pennsylvania's 71 delegates.

There will be other primaries, too, but the ones I have just mentioned are the ones that are likely to get the most attention in the next five weeks. Anyway, for Cruz and Kasich, the news doesn't get much better in those lesser primaries.

On April 5, Wisconsin holds a winner–take–all primary. It will be an open primary, too, so Democrats and independents can participate if they wish, and Wisconsin is the only state doing anything that day. Whoever finishes first wins 42 delegates. I haven't seen any polls from there so I don't know who is leading, but I can say that Wisconsin was one of those Rust Belt states that was hurt by trade agreements in recent years. That seems to have benefited Trump in Michigan and Illinois.

New York also will have the political spotlight to itself, but Pennsylvania will be one of five states holding primaries on April 26. Those states are mostly in the Northeast, which will be a test for Kasich's appeal to a presumably more centrist electorate.

The other four states to vote on April 26 are Connecticut (26 delegates), Delaware (16 delegates), Maryland (38 delegates) and Rhode Island (19 delegates). All but one of those April 26 primaries will be closed. Rhode Island's primary is "semi–closed" — whatever that means.

And most of the primaries being held that day will be winner–take–all contests. Connecticut is winner–take–most and Rhode Island is proportional. Since most of the primaries that day are closed, that should favor Cruz, based on his own assessment, but the region of the country should be more favorable to a moderate like Kasich. Polls indicate, however, that Trump is leading and may improve on his lead in the weeks ahead.

And, of course, looming out there on the Western horizon is California with its winner–take–all prize of 172 delegates. California Republicans won't vote until June 7, but in the latest poll I have seen 38% of likely voters favored Trump. It is worth noting that the poll results were released the day of the Florida and Ohio primaries. Rubio was still in the race, and Kasich had not yet won his home state, but both were included in the poll with Trump and Cruz. Rubio polled 10%, which by itself would not be enough for Cruz to overtake Trump. Neither would the 9% who said they were undecided.

Together, though, they would be enough — as long as not too many of those voters broke for Trump. That is how sizable Trump's lead is in California.

Clearly, it's a pretty steep mountain Cruz and Kasich must climb if they are to prevent Trump from claiming the nomination in Cleveland this July.

No comments: