Not even a month ago, it seemed that the Republican nomination would likely be decided in Cleveland at a contested convention. Wisconsin had voted overwhelmingly for Ted Cruz over Donald Trump. Cruz was sweeping up delegates in the so-called “shadow primary,” making Trump look like a klutz. The math was bad for Trump: Indiana, demographically similar to Wisconsin, held a crucial 57 delegates, and it was hard to find ways to get Trump to 1237 delegates without a victory in California, all the way out on June 7th.
Of course, the media exaggerated this narrative, as the media does, with some pundits saying really silly things, like that there will “almost certainly” be a contested convention. But it definitely seemed more likely than not. April 19th and April 26th were always expected to go badly for Cruz (and did), but from there on out the wind seemed to be at Cruz’s back.
Yet, by April 28th, that confidence had faded — not just among workaday pundits, but among Delegate Twitter. By April 30th, the mood was grim throughout the anti-Trump universe. And by May 2nd, we could see clearly that either the polls were very, very wrong or the anti-Trump campaign was very, very toast. On May 3rd, the party united — behind Trump — and delivered Trump a massive 16-point win in Indiana. Within the hour, Trump’s only viable opposition, Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race, effectively ending the primary that was so recently an open question.
I don’t believe any one explanation can account for what happened. Many things played small parts, and, together, they added up to the race-ending catastrophe of May 3rd. Here are ten:
- Indiana was never as friendly to Cruz as we thought.
Indiana is a plain weird state. It’s a Midwestern state, like Wisconsin, and has Midwestern demographics on the surface, which made it look like good ground for Cruz. But it is also a state with a notoriously strong Southern history and subculture — the last traditional lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line was in Indiana — and it’s close enough to the East Coast to have elements of that culture as well. Indiana is far more of a Rust Belt state than Wisconsin. While Wisconsin has an exceptionally strong conservative Republican party under Scott Walker, Indiana’s Republican Party is built on the legacy of moderate pro-business Mitch Daniels, whose most (in)famous contribution to national politics was to call for a “truce” on social issues, and the conservative coalition there was shattered last year by the bitter intraparty conflict over the Indiana RFRA. Indiana was always an unlikely Wisconsin II, and we largely overlooked that.
Still, both public polls and (according to rumor) campaign internal polls say that Cruz was, at one point, winning the state. There was a notable collapse towards the end. And that collapse was not limited to Indiana; even Minnesota, which memorably handed Trump his greatest defeat of any state this primary season, has suddenly warmed to Trump, with Trump winning a recent statewide poll there (not by much: Trump 34% Cruz 24% Kasich 23% undecided 19%), and, in California, which once seemed quite winnable for Cruz, Trump now leads by an average of 26 points. There was a real collapse here. Why?
2. Voters really hated the Cruz-Kasich alliance.
One poll I found said that 58% of Indiana voters disapproved of the Cruz-Kasich deal last week. The exit polls — and, pardon, I can’t find a link for this right now — reported that most voters didn’t let that affect their decision, but a few did, and they were by and large not happy about it. The deal was always going to damage Cruz, but it appears Cruz (and I) underestimated the extent of the damage. The fact that Kasich reneged on the deal just eight hours after making it meant that this potentially beneficial arrangement turned into nothing but an albatross. Speaking of Kasich…
3. Kasich was still there, functioning as a spoiler.
Now, I was all hepped up to blame Kasich for everything tonight. I’ve been gearing up to do that for months now. In the end, though, Trump won by such a huge margin that Kasich’s presence in the race was non-determinative.
That said, Kasich certainly contributed to Trump’s victory. We know from past exit polling that, if Kasich dropped out, nearly half his voters would stay home, while the other half would split 2-for-1 to Cruz over Trump. That would have brought Cruz one point closer to winning (he would have lost by 15 points instead of 16). And, of course, if Kasich had dropped out before forcing Cruz to enter that alliance in the first place, that would have been worth a few percent as well. I can’t blame Kasich for this loss entirely, as I had expected, but he does share a portion of the blame.
4. The sheer propaganda value of April 19th and 26th was underestimated.
It’s a well-known fact: people like to vote for winners, not losers. Trump won big on April 19th and April 26th. The fact that the smart set knew months in advance that this would happen did not apparently dampen the impact it had on voters: there was palpable motion toward Trump in polling after the April 26th landslide. It’s difficult to sort out how large of the movement was, since it came at the same time as the damaging Cruz-Kasich deal (so there’s a bad signal-to-noise ratio), but I think we can be confident the Acela landslides helped Trump’s standing among Republican voters nationally.
5. April 26th already showed substantial movement toward Trump.
I was always especially bearish (even compared to other delegate nerds) on anti-Trump prospects in the Acela Primary. But even I was surprised by the scope of Trump’s victory: I always thought he’d win all or nearly all of the delegates, but the popular vote percentages were larger than they should have been going by demographics. 52% Trump in Connecticut would have been a good night for Trump; he won 58%. Kasich really should have won at least 3 delegates in Maryland. None of this did much material harm to the delegate race — Connecticut was giving all its 28 delegates to Trump either way, and 3 delegates in Maryland wasn’t going to make or break the convention — but Trump’s strong performance on the 26th was, in retrospect, not merely a sign of regional strength, but a real canary in the coal mine. Why such big victories?
6. The party’s voters opposed a come-from-behind win at a contested convention.
In every single poll since they started polling the question, the GOP base in every state has insisted, by huge margins, that, in the event of a contested convention where no candidate has a 1,237-delegate majority, the candidate with the most delegates should be nominated. Neither Cruz and Kasich had any hope of overtaking Trump in the delegate count. This has been true for over a month, but only started to be widely reported after Wisconsin, when Cruz started snatching up loyal Trump delegates throughout the country. Once GOP voters realized that the only Cruz/Kasich win possible was a second-ballot, out-from-under-Donald win, one may reasonably guess that their (misguided) sense of fair play kicked in and Trump gained a few more points over Cruz.
7. Trump got organized.
This was also presaged on April 26th, when Trump’s previously incompetent delegate acquisition operation was able to pick up 40 delegates in Pennsylvania’s oddball “loophole” primary. This required coordination on a large scale that the Trump campaign just hadn’t pulled off before (and which left the Cruz camp hopeful that it could win a majority of PA’s delegates even without winning the popular vote, simply by out-organizing Trump). At the time, I hoped that Trump’s success here was more due to his overwhelming popular-vote majority, not an actual ground game, but he finally opened his pockets in Indiana, and I read this morning that his volunteers had knocked on 70,000 doors by primary day. Campaign ground games aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, but they’re worth a few points on election day.
8. Trump is a Great Communicator.
It pains me to write that, but it’s true. Once Trump targets somebody, he knows how to make their poll numbers and favorability ratings collapse. “Little Marco” withered under Trump’s attention, and, once Trump settled on the “Lyin’ Ted” meme and exploited primary voter resentment of the intricate delegate selection process to paint Cruz as a conniving, sneaky anti-populist, Cruz’s net favorability among Republicans fell like a stone, even though it really doesn’t make sense; Cruz, despite some integrity problems a few months ago, is clearly way more honest than Trump, who lies more than once per minute. But “Lyin’ Ted” stuck to Cruz, and Trump’s favorability ratings remained strong. He really is good at this, and it’s why I don’t count him out (not entirely, anyway) when he says he can beat Hillary once he focuses his attention on her.
9. The Party refused to rally around Cruz.
It wasn’t just Kasich. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on May 2nd — with the Indiana race still in doubt! — calling on the GOP to rally around Trump (should he become the nominee) rather than voting third party, as a tactical vote to stop Hillary. Never once did the Journal run a single article calling on GOP voters to rally around Cruz, not even as a tactical vote, though he was clearly the only chance at stopping Trump. The Cruz endorsement by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence came too late to matter, and was extremely tepid even when it did come — a stark contrast to Scott Walker’s eventually enthusiastic campaign on Cruz’s behalf. Indiana’s talk radio and conservative media were equally half-hearted. Sen. Dan Coats sat on the sidelines. The state party machinery mostly wanted Kasich, and made that clear, though many also fantasized about drafting ex-Gov. Daniels. These things matter to voters — not as much as they once did, especially in this outsider year, but they make a difference at the margins.
10. The Establishment had to choose between Cruz and Trump — and consciously chose Trump.
This is the most damning thing of all. The Republican Party’s coastal rulers made it very clear, in the final days, that they would prefer the lying thug to the irritating but genuine conservative. Jon Huntsman, the avatar of the ruling class, endorsed Trump over the weekend. John Boehner, who was effectively the leader of the party from 2010-2015 (with a brief 2012 Mitt Romney interlude), stated plainly that, if he had to, he would vote for Trump, who is a golfing buddy of his, but #NeverCruz. This was the culmination of an Establishment Trump-over-Cruz campaign that started all the way back in January, before Iowa. At the time, many people considered it a false flag operation: the establishment was only pretending to prefer Trump because they thought Trump could knock out Cruz in Iowa and then they could destroy Trump in South Carolina. But recent days have proved that this was false: a critical mass of Republican leadership, including some of our most prominent and powerful, genuinely want Donald Trump if the only alternative is Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham did the honorable thing and embraced Cruz despite their hatred of him, but they were the exception (and deserve great credit for it).
This last item is the one that really worries me. I can explain away a lot about the Trump candidacy as a black-swan event, a temporary mass delusion caused by free media exposure, too much direct democracy, and an overcrowded field. I can even write off a chunk of my party (as many as one-third, perhaps) as basically corrupt people with whom I remain in a tense but workable alliance of convenience.
But that the ruling faction of the party — the faction that claims they’re really conservative deep down, but are just a little reluctant because they care about “electability” and “growing the map” — would actually acquiesce to a violent, racist, unelectable, lying, adulterous thug, rather than accept Ted Cruz (whose great sin is that he would be the first genuinely across-the-board conservative nominee since 1980)… well, it exposes them as a pack of anti-conservative liars. I can’t accept that. If those of us who prefer conservatism to Trumpism are a minority in the Republican Party, then in what sense is the Republican Party “conservative” at all?
I am coming to believe that there is no home for me in the Republican Party anymore. It’s not just Trump; it’s the voters who embraced him, and the establishment that ultimately preferred Trumpism to conservatism. Trump will pass, but those voters will still be the Republican base, and those establishment figures will still be the Republican leadership. This isn’t just a 2016 problem.
So, I ask you, dear reader: after tonight, how can I — or any conservative — ever call myself a Republican again?
(UPDATE 5/4: More on this now.)