On February 11, in the wake of the New Hampshire primary, I offered a straightforward observation about the 2016 presidential election:
Trump has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for six months, according to nearly every national and state poll that has been conducted in that time. Obviously, he could win the nomination. In fact, he will, unless someone else wins it. Therefore, it’s in the best interests of the party and the nation for someone else to win it.
That someone else, I noted, was the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz—”the only Republican who’s managed to beat Trump thus far, and the one best positioned to deny him the nomination in the end.”
At the time, both of those points seemed so obvious to me that I wasn’t entirely sure they needed to be stated explicitly. I only laid them out in order to explain why the New Hampshire primary had left me in such a bleak mood. It was clear that many Republicans were reluctant to accept Cruz as an alternative to the frontrunner. Some had even argued that he would be worse than Trump, should it come to that. The establishment’s ambivalence over the question was “a damning example of the willfully delusional attitudes that have led their party to the brink of failure in the first place,” in my view, but an ominous one under the circumstances. The first two contests had left Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio with reason to press forward; until one emerged as the “establishment” alternative, I worried, many Republicans would be distracted from the far more urgent business of stopping Trump. That being the case, I wrote, the New Hampshire primary seemed like a “wretched, unmitigated disaster” for the GOP.
In retrospect, that may have been an overly optimistic assessment. Over the next month, roughly twenty primaries and caucuses confirmed my suspicion that Trump will win the Republican nomination unless Cruz stops him. The five primaries held last week, on March 15, guaranteed as much. A candidate needs 1,237 delegates to secure the Republican nomination, and at the beginning of that the day, Trump had a relatively narrow lead in the delegate race, having mustered 460 delegates compared to Cruz’s 369. By the end of the day, Trump had won in four of the five states that held primaries that day, including Florida, a winner-take-all state with 99 delegates where Rubio had vowed to block Trump. Instead, after losing by nearly 20 points, Rubio suspended his campaign. Making matters worse, arguably, was that Trump’s sole defeat came in Ohio, where voters gave all 66 of the state’s delegates to their state’s governor, John Kasich, who had yet to win any of the previous contests and but nonetheless triumphantly vowed to press forward with his bid.
All told, Trump’s lead ballooned. He now has 678 delegates, compared to 423 for Cruz. The good news is that Republicans have finally woken up to the grim reality of their predicament: Trump is going to win their party’s presidential nomination, unless Cruz stops him. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, who had endorsed Rubio prior to her state’s primary, announced that she would now support his onetime rival: “My hope and my prayer is that Senator Cruz can pull through this.” Lindsey Graham, the senator from that state—who just a few weeks ago joked, or half-joked, that choosing between Cruz and Trump was like choosing between being poisoned or being shot—announced that he had picked the poison. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, explained why he will cast his vote for Cruz in the Utah caucus on Tuesday:
Today, there is a contest between Trumpism and Republicanism. Through the calculated statements of its leader, Trumpism has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity and, most recently, threats and violence. I am repulsed by each and every one of these.
The only path that remains to nominate a Republican rather than Mr. Trump is to have an open convention. At this stage, the only way we can reach an open convention is for Senator Cruz to be successful in as many of the remaining nominating elections as possible.
In other words, it’s still theoretically possible that Cruz can overtake Trump before the convention, as I wrote last week—and more to the point, Cruz has a reasonably good chance of preventing Trump from hitting the critical threshold of 1,237 pledged delegates. The upcoming contests will allocate roughly 1,000 delegates, and Trump would need to win about 60 percent of them to secure the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Cleveland in July. Should no candidate receive a majority of the votes on the first ballot, many of the delegates will become “unpledged,” or free to vote for a different candidate, subject to the various terms of their state parties.
The bad news is that it may actually be too late for Cruz to stop Trump, and—relatedly—that even now, many Republicans appear to be laboring under some serious misconceptions about the causes of their predicament and the solution to it. Some, like the editors of the National Review, are calling for voters to coalesce around Cruz because he has proven his merits as a candidate. Many Republican leaders and conservative voices are, however, merely calling on voters to hold their nose and vote for Cruz as a means to an end. In light of the unfortunate delegate math, he now represents the party’s only chance of stopping Trump, meaning that only Cruz can give the GOP establishment a chance to pick a nominee it prefers—not Trump, in other words, and also not Cruz.
This is, of course, absurd. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming primaries, it’s clear that the lion’s share of the delegates will head to the convention pledged to Trump or Cruz. In theory, it would be possible for someone other than Trump or Cruz to emerge from an open convention as the party’s nominee, but realistically, that would be amazingly contentious. Trump, predictably, has already asserted that he would be “automatically” entitled to the nomination if he leads going into the convention, and threatened “riots” if the party defies him, albeit in his typical, weaselly way: “I think bad things would happen, I really do. I believe that. I wouldn’t lead it but I think bad things would happen.”
Trump is wrong, of course, perhaps due to mere ignorance of how the nominating process actually works, and needless to say, the GOP should not be intimidated by his threats, which he is issuing preemptively, in anticipation of an asserted grievance, while simultaneously disavowing responsibility for the potential consequences of any “bad things” that might come to pass.
All the same, it is the case that for a party to nominate a candidate who didn’t even bother to campaign in the first place would represent a profound breach of small-d democratic principles and, from a philosophical perspective, an unwarranted one. Trump has made no secret of his malformed nature; even back in July, after a cursory glance, anyone could have seen that he was a “grotesque and repulsive clown”. Clearly, it’s been distressing for those of us who did see it to watch millions of Americans support him regardless, but the leaders of the Republican party can’t honestly argue that Trump’s voters have been fundamentally misled.
Nor, thanks to Cruz, do they have to. Assuming he can keep Trump below the critical threshold, I’m reasonably confident that he can emerge as the nominee. Polls have consistently found that he is the leading “second choice” for Republican voters overall–and, significantly, for those whose first choice is Trump. That isn’t a coincidence; it’s a reflection of Cruz’s “Katamari” strategy, which I summarized in October, and predicted a year ago, based on nothing more than the fact that he had chosen to launch his presidential campaign at Liberty University, in conjunction with my pre-existing knowledge of Cruz’s intelligence, his strategic acumen, his steel nerves, and his goal of becoming president. And it’s one of the reasons that Cruz can keep Trump from winning, even if he trails Trump at the beginning of the convention: many of the delegates who are currently pledged to the frontrunner will be reasonably receptive to Cruz as an alternative. No other potential challenger can say the same.
I’ll add, for what it’s worth, that my relatively optimistic assessment of Cruz’s prospects is partly due to his own record of outperforming expectations, beginning with his 2012 Senate campaign, which absolutely no one expected him to win. I knew a year ago that it would be foolish to dismiss him as a contender; he wouldn’t have decided to run for president if he hadn’t seen a path to victory. I knew in November that he would probably win the Iowa caucus, based solely on the fact that he had decided to make a serious push to do so.
And readers who’ve been following the primary closely can surely see Cruz’s plan for winning a contested convention. The Republican convention is the functional equivalent of a closed caucus, without any ambiguities about the level of turnout or who the voters will actually be. If Trump doesn’t have a majority of delegates before it begins, Cruz won’t have to win over the media—or the party leaders. He, along with the ragtag band of misfits known collectively as Cruz Crew, has to convince 1,237 individual delegates to the Republican convention that when it comes to representing conservative principles, leading our nation, and defending our Constitution, he’s a better choice than Trump. We’ve seen Cruz do that a number of times in the past two months, starting in Iowa, and facing a more crowded field.
I’m thankful, in any case, that the delegate math has clarified matters. I’m sick of covering this primary, and I’m sure my readers are sick of reading about it, and now that Republicans have been forced to accept the seriousness of their Trump problem, which I’ve been trying to sound the alarm about since August, I can resume writing about other things.
But let me wrap this up with a comment about Cruz’s critics, who are even now refusing to acknowledge how effective has campaign has been, or to accept him as a valid contender for their party’s presidential nomination. At this point in such a uniquely appalling primary cycle, that level of denialism is inexcusable. Cruz wasn’t my preferred candidate for the Republican nomination either, and I don’t think he’d be a flawless nominee. But he’s obviously a better candidate than Trump. And let’s take a moment to consider how many of Cruz’s critics have passively acquiesced in Trump’s bid for the nomination rather than confront the fact that the voters have clearly rejected the more palatable candidates the GOP’s so-called leaders preferred. In the end, frankly, Cruz is a better candidate than his critics in the Republican establishment deserve.