Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cruz's only real path to the nomination is a contested convention. And that probably means losing the general election

Ted Cruz, man of principle, knows that the only way to beat Donald Trump is at the ballot box. Anything else risks a revolt:

Ted Cruz on Friday said that a brokered Republican National Convention in July "ain't gonna happen," but the presidential candidate and Texas senator also appeared to be open to forming a unity ticket with Marco Rubio.
"A brokered convention is the pipe dream of the Washington establishment," Cruz told reporters ahead of his rally in Orono, Maine, but added, "In my view, a brokered convention ain't going to happen."
Cruz said that if the Washington establishment tried to steal the nomination from the GOP front-runner, currently Donald Trump, it could cause a revolt. That's why he emphasized how important it is for him to win the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

He has allowed himself a little safety net – if he and Trump are “neck and neck” and neither have hit the mark, a contested convention will solve the problem:

"If it ends up happening that we get to Cleveland and nobody has 1,237 delegates, that Donald has a whole bunch of delegates and I have a whole bunch of delegates and we come in neck and neck, then it is up to delegates to decide," he added.

Now, this being Ted Cruz we’re talking about, what “neck and neck” means tomorrow may be a vastly different thing than what it means today…but his comments make it clear that, barring a genuinely close race, come the convention, this would be the wrong path.

Self-appointed prophet and Cruz cheerleader Glenn Beck has been selling this same line with even more fervor. And he’s been less cautious with his language than Cruz, saying directly that whoever goes into the GOP convention with the lead should be the nominee. He argued this on This Week, as part of his vote Cruz spiel:

Now, the GOP is playing unbelievable games right now trying to make sure they get their way, and they're trying to go for a brokered convention. I'm against Donald Trump, but I'll tell you one thing, if he gets -- if he gets close enough and the GOP tries to play games, I won't vote for Donald Trump ever, but I will stand with his right, because the people have spoken. And what the GOP is doing is they are stirring things up because they are more afraid of Ted Cruz than they are of Donald Trump.

Beck proceeded to explain why Kasich and Rubio simply had to – had to! – get out of the race (their “votes would go right to Ted Cruz”), and again reiterated “we don’t want a brokered convention”.
 And even more explicitly, when asked directly if it was right to deny Trump the nomination if he garnered more votes than other candidates, he responded: 

STEPHANOPOULOUS: Does that mean that -- you just said you don't believe it's fair to deny Donald Trump the nomination if he has the lead going in --
BECK: Of course not.
 So, the principled conservative has painted himself into a spot: he has to at least get more delegates than Trump, ideally hitting the magic 1,237 number.
But if we look at the actual numbers, there is almost no realistic path for Ted Cruz to hit 1,237 delegates “at the ballot box”…and getting a lead on Trump is a longshot too. Why?
As of today, the delegate count is:

Trump – 673
Cruz – 411
Kasich – 143

There are 1,061 delegates left to be allocated among Cruz, Kasich and Trump.

If Kasich won literally ever remaining delegate (which is as probable as me being elected Pope), he would have 1,204 delegates. That would put him ahead of both Trump and Cruz, but 33 short of the nomination. In short, if Kasich won everything from now until Cleveland, he still wouldn’t have hit the magic number. His only hope is a contested convention (and even if no one gets 1,237 delegates, it may not benefit him anyway, unless he sees a serious improvement in his political fortunes between then and now).

Trump, on the other hand, is over half way to hitting the needed delegate count (he still needs 564 delegates to become the outright nominee). Cruz though has a much steeper hill to climb…at 411, he’s over 200 delegates short of the halfway mark (618.5). With 826 missing delegates, he has to over double his previous wins in the remaining states.

Percentage wise, that would require securing nearly 78% of the remaining delegates. Trump, by way of contrast, needs just over 53% of the remaining delegates. That’s a much more reasonable number, but may still prove an insurmountable hurdle for the frontrunner, who so far has been winning just under 48% of the allocated delegates. Cruz, on the other hand, hasn’t even scored 30% of the allocated delegates thus far.

But what about Rubio? My Cruz supporting friends have hailed the establishment favorites’ departure as a gift to the Cruz campaign. My gut tells me otherwise. If you examine their rhetoric, it’s clear that Trump appeals mainly to the pissed off, the disenfranchised and the bullies. Other people screwed the nation up, but he’ll fix it, because he’s smart, he’s fixed things before, and he's got people (also, he will happily reassure voters, a large penis). And he'll deport and ban people of color too, because, why not season anger with racism? It’s a cherished Republican recipe for winning elections.

Cruz appeals mainly to the theocrats, the religious fanatics and the social conservatives. He’s going to make America great with faux humbleness to God, and by targeting the rights of all the icky sinners your preacher doesn’t like. God’s got his back, and if Christians band together, they’ll stop the rising tide of radical secularism and protect religious liberty forever and ever, amen. Oh yeah, plus, he's One True Conservative.

Rubio, though, tried to position himself as a reasonable guy. He wasn’t the smarmy preacher who would cure your kid’s cancer, if you only tithed a little harder. He isn’t going to knock your lights out if you cross him. Granted, he’d check all the conservative check boxes (Christian? Check. Opposes women and gay people having too many rights? Check. Wants to exempt religious people from the law? Check). But he’ll do it without foaming at the mouth, and without inciting riots in the streets. That is, he’ll implement an agenda of disenfranchisement, subtly racist policy, and Christian supremacy, but politely. The way smart Republicans have been doing it for decades.

He was, essentially, a younger, less folksy but more robotic Kasich. So the base that supported Rubio is a base that has more in common with Kasich than Trump or Cruz. Originally, I expected that this might translate to higher support for Kasich than the other two, but as our first post-Rubio poll emerges, it seems I wasn't fully accounting for how many supporters would gravitate toward the leading candidate who sort-of-kind of aligned with Rubio rather than the candidate who was most similar but further behind. It's also worth pointing out, the last time this poll was conducted, Carson was still in the pack, so it maps the shift of his evangelical base as well as Rubio's base.

All of that said, this latest Rasmussen poll has Cruz gaining more support (11%) following Rubio and Carson's departure than either other candidate (probably as a result of being the only candidate who has a chance, albeit a nearly impossible one, of making #NeverTrump a reality before the convention; and targeting a the same base as Ben Carson). Still, in terms of net effect, this is decidedly not the miracle Cruz needed, as Kasich is right behind him at 9%, and Trump behind both at 7%. The distribution of support was so similar that it's had a negligible impact on the distance between the front runners:

Rasmussen pollsters found Donald Trump leading the way with 43 percent support, followed by Ted Cruz at 28 percent and John Kasich at 21 percent. Trump’s 15-point cushion is the same as it was the last time the same pollsters asked the question shortly after Trump’s South Carolina victory forced Jeb Bush out of the race.

Now, this is only the first poll, and things may change. But for now, I don’t see Rubio’s departure greatly altering the race for anyone but Kasich (and only, in Kasich’s case, of increasing his viability in a contested convention).

And if both Trump and Kasich combined get more than 235 of the remaining delegates, Cruz doesn’t score the nomination. Which leads me to the conclusion that Cruz hitting 1,237 delegates before Cleveland is practically impossible. (Yes, I included a qualifier because, let’s face it, this election has proved that nothing is impossible…but I see this as being about as unlikely as it gets, barring something like Trump stepping down to devote his life to humanitarian work and peacemaking).

So for all Beck and Cruz’s talk of the ballot box, the best chance Cruz really has is the same one that Kasich has – a contested convention. And to be competitive with Trump – to have a chance of being “neck and neck” – he is not only going to have to win at the same rate as the Cheetos Monster…he’s going to have to gain 250 delegates in the process. With Trump picking up nothing along the way, that’s about 24% of the remaining delegates that he has to win just to be tied with Trump today. Even if Trump’s 48% rate of wins decreases, and Cruz’s 30% increases, that’s a lot of catchup. It’s the more plausible scenario than Cruz securing the nomination by hitting the 1,237 mark in my opinion, but it doesn’t seem particularly likely as Trump doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Cruz’s occasional wins may be enough to prevent an outright win before Cleveland, but, again, barring something like Trump sacrificing kittens on live TV, I don’t put much on Cruz’s chances of catching up.

Now, nothing is impossible. Cruz may yet win the nomination outright. He could get the 78% of delegates between now and Cleveland. Trump may say or do something reasonable, and so lose half his base. But I’m not particularly confident that any of the above will occur. Indeed, the only realistic scenario I see that could potentially lead to a Cruz win seems to be the very one Cruz and Beck detest so very much: handing the nomination not to the candidate preferred by the majority of Republican voters, but to whoever the party can tolerate instead. 

And then? My guess is we’ll see Trump on a third party ticket. Not because he’ll win (he won’t), but for the same reason I suspect Carson considered embracing Trump and not fellow evangelical Cruz after Iowa: retribution for “dirty tricks”. He's hinted it before, and if he ends up losing the nomination despite having more votes (especially if it's a lot more votes) than anyone else, that's not going to sit well with his ego. Which, considering the loyalty of the Trump base, strikes me as an almost guaranteed victory for Democrats, as it would siphon off so many Republican voters from Cruz.

Updated 3/19, to account for new poll data

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