It All Comes Down To Indiana

“If Trump wins every single delegate of the night, that’s unfortunate but not entirely unexpected. Tonight’s tactical voting is to minimize the damage, not to actually make any gains. Indiana is the race that matters, and they’re on May 3rd.”

–Me, April 26th

The time to panic is on May 2nd, if Kasich is still in the race the night before the pivotal Indiana primary and splitting the anti-Trump vote.  That could easily hand Trump the nomination.”

–Me, April 19th

“Thus, I expect Trump to win virtually all the delegates in those primaries; so do most analysts. This wouldn’t be all that bad, either, as long as it drives Kasich definitively out of the race before the pivotal (and very competitive) Indiana contest on May 3rd.

–Me, April 6th

“As long as Trump is denied delegates in Wisconsin, Indiana, and most of California, and Cruz takes the states he’s already expected to take (South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, etc.), Trump will not have 1237 bound delegates going into the convention… even with the whole Northeast under his belt.”

–Me, March 25th

“By this point, if Rubio and Cruz are both still in the race, still splitting their vote against a 40% popular Trump, it’s probably too late to stop Trump.”

–Me, February 27th, speaking about a field that remains divided against Trump through Indiana. I had the identity of the spoiler wrong — it ended up being Kasich — but not the importance of Indiana.

There are ten contests left in the 2016 GOP primary season, but two states matter more than all the rest: Indiana, which votes May 3rd, and California, which votes June 7th.

Why these states? They both award large numbers of bound delegates (which Donald Trump desperately needs and which his opponents desperately need to deny him). More importantly, both states award their delegates on a winner-take-nearly-all basis (“winner-take-all by district and statewide”, if you want to get technical), so the winner can really run up the delegate count even with a narrow plurality win.  Most importantly, both states appear to be competitive, unlike the “safe” Trump states (West Virginia, New Jersey), the “safe” Cruz states (South Dakota, Nebraska), and the “safe” Kasich states (hahahahaha). Most simulations that show Trump winning the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the Republican nomination on the first convention ballot have him winning most delegates in Indiana; virtually all realistic simulations that lead to a contested convention have Trump losing those delegates to Ted Cruz.  Play with the numbers yourself over at 538, taking note of the underlying demographics of each remaining state, which have been a surprisingly useful predictor of Trump’s vote share so far (especially in the absence of much polling), and you’ll soon recognize what this blog first noted in February: if we can’t unite to stop Trump by Indiana, then it’s probably too late to stop Trump.

Indiana is thus a do-or-die state for anti-Trump forces — the first time we’ve face that stark situation… and, possibly, if we lose there, the last time, too.

Once you understand the importance of Indiana, many of the events of the past few days make a great deal of sense:

The Kasich-Cruz Truce

If Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee, there is every chance that John Kasich will be the single person most responsible for it. Kasich has steadfastly refused to follow Marco Rubio and honorably depart a race he cannot win (even at a contested convention), and his division of the anti-Trump vote could easily deliver not just Indiana, but otherwise-strong Cruz states like South Dakota and Montana, into Trump’s waiting hands. This would directly cause Trump to win the nomination. Unfortunately, even Kasich’s humiliating, devastating defeat on his “home turf,” the Northeast Acela Corridor (in which he failed to win even a single congressional district), has not driven the arrogant, delusional son-of-a-mailman out of the race.

Cruz, who has proved throughout the year to be an excellent tactician, is thus forced to face what I literally termed a “nightmare scenario” back in February: a three-person race going into Indiana, with Trump holding 40% of the vote and his opponents splitting the 60% anti-Trump vote and thus losing. It was imperative that Cruz mitigate that threat, or face likely total defeat.

Kasich faces the same imperative, with the same stakes, but, as with so many imperatives, the Kasich campaign is ignoring it.  Perhaps because the Kasich campaign already has virtually no chance at winning the nomination (thus has less to lose), or perhaps because the Kasich campaign is simply bad at math, Kasich has campaigned in Indiana even though doing so decreased the chances of Kasich actually winning the nomination. (Kasich needs a contested convention to have even a slim shot, and, if Trump wins Indiana, there’s very likely no contested convention. Kasich needs Cruz to win Indiana as much as Cruz does.) In essence, Kasich strapped on a suicide bomb vest and gave Cruz a great big hug.

Thus, on Monday, Cruz and Kasich announced their “truce.” Kasich agreed to pull out of Indiana. In exchange, however, Cruz ceded to Kasich New Mexico and Oregon. Combined, the two states have 51 delegates to Indiana’s 57, which makes them appear about equal. However, they are far less important than Indiana, since they award delegates proportionally. Kasich gains very little of practical value from this exchange. As far as I can see, Kasich’s main gain here is legitimacy: Cruz had to publicly deal with Kasich as an equal, despite the fact that Kasich today has fewer delegates (and fewer victories) than Rubio, who dropped out a month ago.

Cruz, for his part, cannot possibly have desired this, which explains why he put it off so long. For one, granting Kasich a clear shot in a couple of states gives Kasich more reason to stay in the race longer, which is just the opposite of what Camp Cruz (and any serious anti-Trump campaigners) want right now. For two, the overt collaboration between the two candidates feeds directly into Trump’s “the system is rigged” narrative, which had already been paying dividends for Trump before the Cruz-Kasich armistice was announced. There is no question that making a public pact with Kasich damages Cruz, who is in no position to take on damage right now.

But it also clears Kasich out of Indiana, consolidating the anti-Trump voted behind Cruz. This is so essential to defeating Trump that Cruz really had no choice but to take it or watch his campaign die in the Hoosier State. When a suicide bomber is hugging you, your only options are to give in to his demands or die stubborn.

Unfortunately, within about two hours after the pact was announced, Kasich himself sabotaged it, saying that his supporters in Indiana ought to vote for him anyway. This, of course, defeats the whole purpose of the alliance, which was to stop Trump in (hopefully) all three states but (at least) Indiana. It is also the opposite of what the infinitely more honorable Marco Rubio said prior to March 15th, when he instructed his supporters in Ohio to support Kasich.  (Then, too, Kasich refused to say the same to his supporters in Florida.) After Kasich’s public retreat from the brand-new alliance, the Cruz campaign immediately fired back by saying their supporters in Oregon and New Mexico should still vote for Cruz, and both campaigns are now pretending that this whole truce was only about how they would “deploy their resources” (which makes no tactical sense unless the goal is to change vote totals!). It is unclear who exactly is to blame for this, but the truce has, for the most part, failed, and all the public evidence, anyway, points to Kasich as the culprit.

So Cruz ended up with a very bad situation here: he was damaged by making the deal, and the benefit he sought from the deal — assistance from Kasich in Indiana — has largely failed to materialize. (Some of Kasich’s Indiana supporters may defect to Cruz to stop Trump anyway, though Kasich himself has been little help in that.) It was the right decision under the circumstances, and I would have made it in his position, but it was always an ugly choice, and it’s playing out worse than expected.

The silver lining: Cruz and Kasich announced their arrangement the Sunday before the April 26th delegate massacre. Cruz knew that massacre was coming, and knew Trump’s Northeastern triumph would knock the Cruz/Kasich collaboration out of the news cycle within 36 hours of its announcement, minimizing the amount of damage it could do to him among the public. That’s exactly what happened: Cruz is reaping whatever slim benefits the collaboration brought, but nobody’s really talking about it to his detriment.

Fiorina’s Vice-Presidential Bid

The sad truth is that Cruz had a terrible night on Tuesday, knew weeks in advance he was going to have a terrible night on Tuesday, and needed to do something big to change the headlines to something less bad.

This is a tactic Cruz borrowed from Trump: throughout this campaign season, whenever Trump has a bad day (because he lost a debate, or Maine), he prevents it from sinking in by changing the headline, whether by saying something outrageous or by deliberately provoking a minor riot in Chicago (which was the post-Maine strategy).

So, Cruz knew that the media was going to come out of April 26th hailing Trump as the conquering juggernaut who cannot possibly be stopped. (This was a correct prediction.) What could  he do to shake things up? There’s a well-known media double standard about Trump (throughout this campaign, Trump has gotten more media coverage about less important things than all his competitors combined), but Cruz had an ace in his pocket: he could announce his vice-presidential pick. Even the TrumpTrumpTrump media would have to pay attention to that.

So Cruz leaks that his campaign is vetting Carly Fiorina on the day of the massacre, then announces her as his veep choice the day after, doing his darndest (with a morning announcement just to tease the afternoon announcement) to dominate the news cycle.

This probably sounds cold-blooded and cynical. All tactical decisions do, when they’re laid out for their tactical worth. Reagan did something similar in 1976 by naming Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican, as his running mate. Reagan did this to reassure the party establishment that he could create a big-tent conservatism, despite the fact that he shared very little in common with Schweiker. (It didn’t work, at any rate; Reagan lost the nomination at a semi-contested convention.)

Cruz’s decision to name Carly as his running mate isn’t nearly as cynical as that. Carly endorsed Cruz months ago, and they’ve been enthusiastic collaborators ever since. She shares Cruz’s outsider credentials and his core conservative platform, without falling apart under scrutiny the way Sarah Palin did. She has a lot of the charisma Cruz lacks. No doubt Carly would have appeared on the Cruz VP shortlist no matter what the timing was.

However, if we pick at it a little further, the tactical advantages to naming Carly are obvious. First, she doesn’t compromise the Cruz “brand.” It is traditional for presidential candidates to pick running mates who “balance the ticket,” as Lincoln picked Johnson and Reagan picked Schweiker, but, in this hotly anti-establishment year, doing so would have gone directly against Cruz’s own rhetoric against the “Washington cartel” and fueled charges of hypocrisy. If Cruz had named, say, Kasich as his running mate, it’s easy to imagine a bunch of Cruz supporters (who support Cruz because he is a conservative, principled outsider) pulling up stakes and going to Trump, because Kasich is neither conservative (at least, not to the extent these Cruz fans are) nor principled nor an outsider. There are very few credible people who wouldn’t hurt Cruz’s brand like this; Carly is one of the few.

Second, Carly’s message complements Cruz very well: she’s a woman, which makes her a potent defensive weapon against Hillary Clinton’s gender-warfare campaign (ugh, I know, I hate identity politics, too), and — far more importantly right now — Carly is one of the few people, of any sex, who have landed a clear and damaging blow on Trump during this election cycle, with her retort to his comments about her face in an early debate.

Beyond this, conservative women love Carly. The last poll on her I can find that broke out by gender and ideology found her at 60% favorable / 22% unfavorable among Republican women — 9 points better than she performed among Republican men. My sister, who has been profoundly skeptical of Cruz throughout the cycle, actually clapped and cheered when she heard the news. She is not the only conservative female I know to have had this reaction. Nor is this a reflexive, identitarian response to a “woman candidate.” Conservative women don’t go in for that Gloria Steinem nonsense. If anything, my female conservative friends dislike Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin more than my male friends do. What resonates with them is Carly’s ability to passionately articulate the moral truth of the conservative position, especially her fierce honesty about what it is Planned Parenthood actually does (hey! they kill fully-formed babies and harvest their body parts in exchange for money that they claim isn’t profit!). Since Cruz is weak with conservative women (the same poll had him at 56/28 with Republican women, 4 points worse than he does with Republican men), having Carly Fiorina on the ticket shores him up.

Third, Carly is popular among Republicans in California, where she ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2010 but is still well-liked by the base voters who almost got her there. You may recall that California is the only state left on the calendar even more important than Illinois Indiana. Fiorina could be a potent weapon for Cruz there.

Unfortunately, I don’t see how Carly helps Cruz much in Indiana, which is our area of immediate focus.

Even more unfortunately, the Cruz campaign’s attempt to use the VP nomination as a distraction from the Acela corridor massacre on Tuesday largely didn’t work: headlines played it up as a desperate move from a campaign on the rocks, and frequently didn’t give it much coverage at all; CNN.com considered the Sanders campaign’s big layoffs a bigger story. I’m compelled to quote a passage from FiveThirtyEight’s chat about the Carly nod:

Nate Silver: My contract requires me to complain one more time about how Trump-centric the media coverage has become. It’s actually become moreTrump- centric as the campaign has gone along. While Trump could command a 13-person roundtable on CNN by inadvertently farting during a press conference, Cruz has to do something actually newsworthy — and risky and “desperate” — to get the same treatment.

Clare Malone: To Nate’s point, it was just amazing to watch MSNBC last night, anchored by Brian Williams, cut away from most of the candidate speeches but just hang onto Trump’s forever and ever. It hits you over and over again. In a lot of ways, you can’t blame Cruz for wanting to wrest our attention away for a media moment or two.

So Ted Cruz has made two major strategic gambles this week in order to secure Indiana. Both were reasonable gambles, well-founded on the available data and both seemed likely to succeed at the time they were made.

However, neither has paid off as expected, and Cruz enters the most crucial days of the entire 2016 GOP primary little better off than he would have been without these gambles… and perhaps even a bit worse. If you don’t want Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee, then it’s not time to panic, but it’s time to be awfully nervous.

Indiana votes next Tuesday, May 3rd.

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  • David

    What would you do if Trump wins the nomination? I’m planning on going Third-Party.

    • BCSWowbagger

      I have firmly resolved not to comment on this very dark possibility unless it happens. Until then, we fight on — to California, to the rules committee, to the convention floor — never allowing ourselves to become accustomed to the idea of Mr. Donald J. Trump as the standard-bearer of a once-conservative party. –James