Any claim that he’s lost his momentum is about to end.
Any claim that he’s lost his momentum is about to end.
Those Republicans united in opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy pulled off the perfect victory in the April 5 Republican primary in Wisconsin. Through a combination of paid and earned media and successful rallying behind Sen. Ted Cruz as the alternate candidate—rather than splitting votes between him and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—the anti-Trump apparatus was able to keep the GOP front-runner’s support ceilinged to 35 percent, roughly the same number he was polling at when there were still six candidates in the race. It was a humiliating loss for Trump, and the one that finallytaught him to at least marginally watch his mouth (and his retweets).
The Cruz campaign has since tried to spin Wisconsin as a “turning point” in the race, or the moment when the Republican Party united behind him to block Trump’s path to the nomination. Like most spin, this isn’t entirely the case. It’s true that Trump’s near-shutout in delegates in the state hampered his ability to reach the 1,237 bound delegates he needs to secure the nomination, and his fate now probably hinges on corralling some number of unbound delegates. But the idea that this signaled a shift in “momentum” in the race toward Cruz is much less evidence-based. Throughout this back-and-forth primary calendar we haven’t seen shifts in “momentum” so much as shifts in geography.
And now that the race has shifted to the Northeast for the remainder of April, the anti-Trumpers are back exactly where they were before Wisconsin: with a split vote that allows Trump to clean house.
Trump is going to win the New York primary on Tuesday. No one ever doubted that. What will be important to watch, though, is whether he can break 50 percent statewide andin each congressional district to exceed winner-take-all thresholds and capture nearly all of the state’s 95 delegates. He looks in decent shape to reach the magic number statewide, and Wednesday’s Siena College poll showed his support to be fairly consistent geographically: He’s at 56 percent in New York City, 52 percent in downstate suburbs, and 48 percent upstate. As BuzzFeedreports, anti-Trump spending groups aren’t even bothering with New York anymore.
Trump is going to dominate on April 26, too. Connecticut (28 delegates) has a 50 percent winner-take-all threshold statewide and plurality winner-take-all rules by congressional district. A new Emerson College poll finds Trump at 50 percent and leading in all five congressional districts. Trump is similarly taking command in Maryland (38 delegates) although John Kasich might be able to pluck a couple of moderate, well-educated districts in the D.C. suburbs. Meanwhile, a Monmouth University survey released Wednesday shows Trump picking up 58 percent of Maryland’s “very conservative” voters—usually Cruz’s best demographic, which tells you all you need to know about his chances for Maryland pickups. Trump will almost certainly win Pennsylvania’s 17 bound statewide delegates; its unbound district delegates are a more complicated matter. Rhode Island’s 19 delegates are proportionally allocated and though there hasn’t been any recent polling, Trump will likely end up with a plurality. Delaware is a pure winner-take-all state with 16 delegates. It has not been polled because no one respects Delaware. Poor Delaware! It will either be Trump or Kasich and probably not Kasich, because Kasich can’t win any state besides Ohio.
The pattern in all these states is similar: Trump gets his plurality—or, especially the closer you get to New York, his majority—while neither of his rivals can emerge as a viable anti-Trump horse, and so they fumble around with 15 to 30 percent each.
The anti-Trump thinking behind Kasich continuing his campaign after he won Ohio on March 15 and the rest of the field cleared out was twofold. First, he’s incredibly stubborn and wanted to stay in, so it was the only option. Second, the Northeast is hardly Cruz territory, in part because the Cruz campaign casts the region’s hub as home to god-stabbing gay abortionists as part of its (effective) heartland messaging. So the plan was to divvy up the work: Cruz would serve as the anti-Trump alternative between the coasts—a role he has so far successfully filled—Kasich would be the anti-Trump vehicle for Northeastern hedonists, and then they could figure out the complex California situation later. Kasich hasn’t been able to take care of his end.
The Ohio governor is doing better than Cruz in Northeastern states, just not by enough. Kasich may be a better regional fit than Cruz, but he’s also not as strong of a presidential candidate. At this point, it’s still useful on net for Kasich to stay in just to help keep Trump below various 50-percent thresholds. But the split field makes it nearly impossible for Trump to lose much of anything in the region. The only anti-Trump strategy that genuinely would have helped in the Northeast would have been for Kasich to appeal more to Republican primary voters from the beginning, and that just wasn’t happening.
One of the reasons that so many incorrect political observers (including myself) assumed Donald Trump wouldn’t actually run for president was that he wouldn’t be able to cope with certain loss. Early last year when he was considering a run, he was registering nothing in the polls and his favorability ratings were comically poor among Republicans and the general population alike. Since he was going to lose everything, and by a lot, what would be his exit strategy from the race? Wouldn’t he have to quit by, say, December, after getting some good publicity but before real voting commenced, so he could lie about how he could have won the presidency but didn’t feel like it?
As I was saying: incorrect. Trump will almost certainly finish primary season with the most votes, states won, and delegates to his name. But he has not won anything since Arizona’s primary on March 22 and, in the meantime, he has lost the Wisconsin primary and has been outhustled on the ground by Sen. Ted Cruz in Colorado’s convention delegate hunt. His disorganization in selecting loyal convention delegates from the states he’s already won means he has little chance of winning the nomination if it extends beyond a first convention ballot, and winning on the first ballot will likely rest on his ability to woo some not-insignificant number of scattered unbound delegates to his corner. Though the next stretch of contests are favorable to Trump, the possibility that he does not become the nominee despite having the most votes, states won, and delegates to his name has emerged, setting up the likelihood of a lively Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
After all that, it returns us to that original question: How would Donald Trump cope with a loss, or as he might call it were anyone else in his shoes at this point, a “choking?” How would he spin such a convention defeat to prevent his brand and his legacy—because he hasearned himself a sizable legacy in modern American political history, regardless of what happens next—from forever being associated not just with defeat, but with an inability to close out the greatest deal of his life?
This eventuality is what he seems to be planning for, consciously or subconsciously, if you read anything into his recent bromides against the “rigged” system of delegate selection, formalized Thursday in an extremely ghostwritten column for the Wall Street Journal. In it, he attacks the idiosyncratic Colorado delegate selection process. Republican insiders have treated this as nothing more than whining. The rules were put in place last year, they say; if he didn’t prepare, then he has no grounds on which to take issue. To his supporters, though, these complaints ring quite true. And they have a point. Why couldn’t Colorado have just held a primary instead of skipping straight to district and state conventions that allow in-the-know types to dominate? Was 34 delegates for Ted Cruz, however impressive a feat of organization, really the most accurate representation of Colorado Republicans’ political preferences?
Trump is cleverly trying to spin his apparent lack of organization into a virtue of his candidacy: that the rules are complicated by design to prevent an outsider from succeeding. “In recent days, something all too predictable has happened: Politicians furiously defended the system,” the writer writing under the name of “Donald J. Trump” explains in the Journal. “ ‘These are the rules,’ we were told over and over again. If the ‘rules’ can be used to block Coloradans from voting on whether they want better trade deals, or stronger borders, or an end to special-interest vote-buying in Congress—well, that’s just the system and we should embrace it.”
“Let me ask America a question,” the writer continues. “How has the ‘system’ been working out for you and your family?”
The column goes on to introduce a new campaign promise. If president, Trump will “work closely with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and top GOP officials to reform our election policies. Together, we will restore the faith—and the franchise—of the American people.” (Presumably there are few plans within either the Trump camp or RNC to cease real disenfranchisement efforts, but that’s another story.)
It’s useful to read this column and listen to the rest of his ravings about the flawed process as him articulating his contingency plan in the event of a loss. In such an event, he would argue that the party used every trick it could muster to stop him, the people’s choice, from winning the nomination. In this, he would be right and wrong. The party will have used every trick it had to stop him. But that he has gotten as far as he has demonstrates the dearth of tricks available to the party, since winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules frequently allowed him to turn his narrow pluralities into majority delegate pickups.
Trump may be denied the nomination, but that won’t stop him from saying he won it anyway. He will argue until his death that he actually is the rightful GOP nominee but that the RNC pulled some rules run-around on him to deny him his crown. Trump should be able to successfully spin that to his need, and his need is simply to avoid being labeled a choker every place he goes for the rest of his life. What it doesn’t mean, though, is that he would be a gracious loser in defeat (not that anyone is expecting this), or urge his supporters to move on and to back the eventual nominee. That would not help his brand, and the brand comes first.