Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How Hard Will Republican Leaders Fight for Ted Cruz?

Over the past few weeks, several prominent leaders of the wilting faction of Republican Regulars—including Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Lindsey Graham—have called on party voters to unite behind the presidential candidacy of Ted Cruz. To observe that these expressions of support have been "grudging" is to understate the matter considerably. Romney announced that he was voting for Cruz in the Utah caucus but refused to acknowledge that he was officially endorsing the senator; Bush simply issued a short statement to the press, suggesting that he was not ready to hit the campaign trail on Cruz's behalf any time soon; and Graham, who previously compared the competition between Cruz and Donald Trump to a choice between death by gunshot or by poison, openly conceded that his sole purpose in backing a candidate for whom he has considerable contempt was to resist an even less palatable Trump nomination.

Today, Politico reports that these recent public gestures represent a larger shift in thinking among Republican politicians and strategists. Washington Republicans continue to disdain Cruz as both personally dishonorable and politically toxic, but many have concluded that his probable defeat in a general election would be less damaging than a Trump-led ticket to both the down-ballot fortunes of Republican congressional candidates in 2016 and the long-term health of the party beyond this year.

Left unexplored in the Politico article, however, is the key matter of delegate math. At this stage of the nomination process, Cruz has no realistic chance of winning an outright majority of delegates by the end of the primary calendar, and is nearly as unlikely to pass Trump (who is now almost 300 delegates in the lead) in the overall count. Anyone still contemplating the prospect of a Cruz nomination needs to acknowledge that such an outcome can now only occur as a product of a contested convention at which a pro-Trump plurality is outvoted by a pro-Cruz majority consisting of an alliance between Cruz's own pledged delegates and those originally bound to other candidates—an event that would produce certain controversy, if not outright procedural (and even physical) conflict.

For Republicans who have resigned themselves to Cruz as not merely a stalking-horse for a deadlocked convention that would ultimately nominate someone like Paul Ryan but as the only plausible remaining alternative to nominating Trump, this is an important point to realize. It's one thing to concede today from an armchair that Cruz is a preferable nominee to Trump, but committing oneself to a bloody battle at the convention in order to throw the nomination to Cruz will require a much greater investment of energy, degree of coordination, and assumption of political risk. Republican Regulars may have made their peace with Cruz's status as a better option than Trump. But are they really willing to go to war for him?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Dumping Trump at the Convention Requires Help From GOP Voters

Anecdotally, it seems as if some of the fight has gone out of the Never Trump movement this week. Anti-Trump Republicans have continued to blast away at their nemesis in the press and on the Internet, but Trump's multiple electoral victories on Tuesday have dimmed his critics' hopes that Republican primary voters will rally around the two other remaining candidates in order to send a clear sign that they, too, find Trump an intolerable choice for the nomination.

Whether Trump will actually gain an outright majority of pledged delegates remains mathematically unclear and probably will not be resolved until June 7, the final date on the primary calendar, when delegate-rich California and New Jersey have scheduled their primaries along with three smaller states. But we can conclude at this stage that Trump is positioned to hold a delegate plurality at minimum, and with it the standing to argue that he, as the first choice of Republican voters, cannot rightfully be denied the nomination.

One set of issues raised by the prospect of a contested convention is procedural, encompassing party rules (and their interpretation and possible revision), the selection of delegates, and so forth. But another set involves the question of legitimacy: whether the national party organization has the "right" to block the popular choice of the Republican electorate from receiving its presidential nomination, and whether doing so would or would not cause more damage to the Republican Party—both in the short and long term—than ratifying the expressed preference of party members.

Given the magnitude of the threat posed by Trump to much of the existing Republican leadership, it is somewhat remarkable how little open resistance there has been (one short speech by Mitt Romney does not really constitute a party-wide revolt). It is possible that party leaders are quietly confident that Trump can be defeated down the road; more likely, they are more or less resigned to a Trump nomination unless the voters themselves shift against Trump in the remaining primaries. This behavior suggests the existence of a powerful norm respecting the perceived democratic legitimacy of the primary process even when it results in a deeply undesirable outcome.

Put simply, Republican leaders are unlikely to risk building a coordinated effort to block Trump at the convention unless they feel as if the voters are behind them. If Trump's support were to decline significantly in the later primaries, so that he barely crawled across the finish line with a plurality of delegates, anti-Trump forces might be emboldened to carry the fight to Cleveland. Alternatively, if the Republican electorate as a whole expressed obvious buyer's remorse—for example, if a majority of Republican identifiers told pollsters by July that they supported an effort to discard Trump in favor of an alternative candidate—the anti-Trump Republicans could claim a popular legitimacy of their own to rival that conferred on Trump by the electoral process.

Absent such signals from the voters, however, the usual presumption that a first-place candidate should rightfully claim victory is likely to hold—and a demoralized Republican leadership will reluctantly acknowledge that the people have spoken.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The State of the Race: Clinton vs. Sanders, Trump vs. Math

Since the night of the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic presidential nomination race has been a competition between two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The Republican contest, however, has now become a closely-matched battle between a single candidate, Donald Trump, and the number 1,237—a sum representing the delegate total that a Republican candidate needs to win in order to be nominated at the party’s national convention this July.

Last night’s primary elections in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio clarified the status of both parties’ nomination races. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s victories in all five states, including a 2-to-1 popular margin over Sanders in Florida, gave her a virtually insurmountable lead in the national delegate count. Sanders will presumably fight on into the spring, but his campaign cannot realistically overtake Clinton’s numerical advantage among pledged delegates—and he is even further behind when the heavily pro-Clinton population of superdelegates is added to the arithmetic.

For the Republicans, Tuesday’s election results extended Trump’s lead over the other remaining candidates who nominally represent his political competition. Even more importantly, however, they increased the probability that he will prevail over what now looms as his most formidable opponent: the requirement that presidential nominees win an overall majority of delegates.

Trump benefited from a Republican party rule that allows states voting or after March 15 to allocate delegates to candidates via non-proportional formulas. (In contrast, the Democratic National Committee imposes a uniform proportionality requirement on all state primaries and caucuses.) His decisive victory in Florida received particular attention in the news media for ending the presidential candidacy of Marco Rubio, who was favored by many Republican leaders and campaign professionals. But it was also noteworthy for significantly bolstering Trump’s position in the delegate hunt, since the state awards all 99 of its delegates to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

In Illinois and Missouri, most Republican delegates are allocated in a winner-take-all fashion at the level of individual congressional districts. This procedure also favored Trump, who tends to attract a broadly-distributed geographic base of support. Trump received 41 percent of the statewide popular vote in Missouri—edging out rival candidate Ted Cruz by less than 2,000 votes—and 39 percent in Illinois, but appears to have accumulated as much as three-quarters of the delegates from both states.

Trump lost Ohio, and its 66 delegates, to John Kasich, but even in defeat the news was not all bad for the front-runner. Kasich had indicated that he would fold his campaign if he lost his home state, but the results in Ohio keep him in the race for now. Kasich’s continued presence as an active candidate will reduce the share of delegates won by Trump in upcoming state primaries that continue to employ proportional allocation formulas, but the likelihood that Kasich and Cruz split the anti-Trump vote may allow Trump to gain substantial numbers of delegates from the larger number of winner-take-all states even if he falls short of an overall popular majority. In any event, the delegate allocation rules from this point forward provide the leading candidate with a clear structural advantage; as long as Trump keeps winning states, he will receive a disproportionate share of the remaining delegates.

It is yet impossible to predict with certainty whether or not Trump will succeed in reaching the magic number of 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary season, which is still nearly three months away. But Tuesday’s results virtually ensure that Trump will at least come close to that milestone—absent a spectacular and unprecedented collapse in his popular support—and will be able to claim more state-level victories, more popular votes, and more delegates won than any other Republican presidential candidate.

Trump has made it clear that he will demand the nomination even if he only achieves a plurality, arguing at the March 10 debate in Miami that “whoever gets the most delegates should win.” But the members of the Republican Party who cannot accommodate themselves to the Trump candidacy—a faction led unofficially by 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney—have staked their hopes on stopping Trump short of a majority and maneuvering in a contested convention to award the nomination to somebody else.

This plan has always faced significant obstacles, from the inherent difficulties in coordination among a large population of party officials and delegates to the certainty of outraged protest not only by Trump but also by Cruz, the probable second-place finisher in the delegate race, who is unlikely to represent the Republican leadership’s favored alternative prospective nominee. But perhaps the most powerful force working against the stop-Trump movement is the widely-accepted norm of democratic legitimacy awarded to the leading candidate in an electoral competition. Even the recipient of a mere plurality can claim to be the people’s choice, at least in comparison to any other single individual, and Trump, as a near-certainty to place first in the delegate count, will surely do so with no little vehemence.

Tuesday’s results indicate that Trump could well achieve an outright majority of delegates by the end of the primary calendar—and will otherwise fall short by a relatively modest margin. Republicans dedicated to blocking his ascent must not only mobilize to develop a procedural plan to take control of the nomination process on the inside, but must also begin to persuade the American public that denying the prize to the leading Republican candidate is not an unfair and illegitimate use of power by party elites. Otherwise, the conflict and rancor that we have seen so far in this campaign will pale in comparison to what lies ahead.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dumping Trump Without Choosing Cruz

The more subdued Donald Trump who showed up at last Thursday's debate was seemingly eager to coast on his front-runner status without risking any political damage by indulging in his usual pastimes of making controversial remarks and aggressively belittling his opponents. But this new "kinder, gentler" phase of the Trump campaign lasted less than 24 hours before the candidate plunged the Republican race back into turmoil. Trump's abrupt cancellation of a planned Chicago rally on Friday in the face of a large contingent of protestors, his subsequent verbal defense of supporters who engaged in violent acts against his critics, and the attempt of one anti-Trump activist to rush the stage during a Saturday morning speech in Ohio—to which Trump later responded by accusing the man of terrorist connections—added up to one particularly unsettling weekend of the campaign, inspiring a variety of political analysts and thinkers on the left and right alike to condemn Trump as a uniquely malignant force in American politics whose pursuit of power must be stopped for the very sake of the nation.

It is safe to assume that the majority of Republican leaders are privately aghast at the prospect of a Trump nomination. Apart from highly dubious assertions that he expands the traditional appeal of the GOP to independents and Democrats, Trump brings nothing to the party table. He is neither consistently loyal to conservative principles nor devoted to the Republican Party as an institution. His political rhetoric, business record, and decades of media pronouncements are rife with potential attack-ad fodder. He leads no larger faction within the party that can demand deference from its elected officials. He is, by all evidence, the most unpopular major political figure in the eyes of American voters, and he inspires especially intense antipathy among several key groups—racial minorities, young people, single women—whose electoral participation is undependable but whose energetic mobilization in November would be particularly beneficial to the Democratic opposition. It is reasonable to expect that a Trump candidacy would produce a potentially cataclysmic Republican defeat, with damaging consequences enduring for years to come.

And yet luck smiles on Trump. For, in an unlikely twist, his chief rival in the nomination race is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—the one Republican politician whom party elites detest more than any other (Trump included). The undoubtedly-strong instinct of many Republicans to denounce Trump, to call for all right-thinking party members to unite in order to ensure his defeat, is stayed by the consideration that such an effort at this stage in the race would primarily benefit Cruz.

Over the weekend, the nomination race provided quantitative evidence to bear on this matter in the form of the District of Columbia Republican caucus. DC is, of course, overwhelmingly Democratic, and its relatively modest population of registered Republicans is mostly composed of political professionals: congressional staffers, campaign operatives, think tank fellows, and the like. About 2,800 of them turned out on Saturday to register their presidential preferences, producing a narrow victory for Marco Rubio—still the favorite of Republican politicos if not Republican voters—over fellow "establishment" type John Kasich. Unsurprisingly, Trump finished far behind the two leading candidates, gaining less than 14 percent of the vote—his worst showing by far in any primary or caucus in an English-speaking state or territory.

He still placed ahead of Cruz.

For the majority of Republican elites, the presidential primary process—up to and including the convention itself—is not currently dedicated to the lone purpose of preventing the unique national catastrophe of a Trump nomination, but has instead evolved into a frantic exercise in steering the prize away from Trump and Cruz alike. Single-minded efforts to minimize Trump's delegate count at any cost might have the unwelcome consequences of opening a window for Cruz to claim an overall delegate plurality, if not a majority—a particularly troublesome development from the perspective of party leaders, who would have much less pretext to deny the leading candidate the nomination at the convention if it were Cruz, not Trump, who wound up with the most delegates.

What does this mean for the Republican contest from this point forward? If the polls are accurate, Marco Rubio is likely to lose his home state of Florida by an ample margin on Tuesday, which would make it nearly impossible for him to avoid folding his campaign. Assuming that John Kasich does well enough on his own home turf of Ohio that same day to justify soldiering on, Kasich would then become the only non-insurgent in a three-candidate contest—and thus the lone remaining factor keeping either Trump or Cruz from assembling a majority of delegates. Republican regulars would likely provide Kasich with the necessary resources to stay in the race for the long term, rendering him a stalking horse—now there's a newly-relevant entry in the American political lexicon!—for an eventual establishment-approved nominee to be chosen at the convention itself.

It's a pretty crazy scheme that just might work. But let's be clear: this plan is not merely dedicated to the cause of averting a national crisis by stopping a uniquely destructive individual from capturing the banner of a major party. It is also a scramble by desperate Republican leaders to seize control of a nomination process heretofore dominated by a mass electorate that has repeatedly registered a preference for not one but two candidates whom most party elites view as thoroughly, and equally, unacceptable.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Debate Recap: Would Republicans Really Stand Up to Their Base to Dump Trump?

The Republican debate in Miami Thursday night surprised almost everyone with its unexpectedly calm tone and focus on policy, to the extent that Donald Trump himself remarked on stage that he "cannot believe how civil it's been up here." Undoubtedly, all four candidates are running short on energy after weeks on the campaign trail. Trump clearly chose to sit on his lead in the race and refrain from stirring up more controversy, John Kasich remained loyal to his strategy of selling himself as the most positive candidate in the race, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who have tussled with Trump in the past, no longer exhibit confidence that attacks on the front-runner will benefit their own campaigns.

Late in the evening, conservative writer and radio host Hugh Hewitt asked the candidates about the prospect of a contested convention in which no single candidate held a majority of delegates. Kasich and Rubio, neither of whom could plausibly receive a majority themselves at this stage in the race, both dodged the question. Trump replied that he believed that "whoever gets the most delegates should win" even if the total fell short of an overall majority, which he referred to as an "artificial" and "random" number. Cruz did not explicitly agree with Trump's position, but argued that "some in Washington" are "unhappy with how the people are voting and they want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee. I think that would be an absolute disaster and we need to respect the will of the voters."

Trump and Cruz both understand that they are disliked by Republican Party leaders and that recent talk of a contested convention is coming from corners of the party that wish to block their ascent. Trump, anticipating that he will lead in the overall delegate count at the end of the primaries, is signaling that he will demand the nomination anyway even if he fails to accrue an overall majority. Cruz would presumably do the same if he manages to surpass Trump in delegates, but he may also be keeping the option open of arguing that any convention bent on denying a majority- or plurality-winning Trump the nomination should rightfully turn to him, the likely second-place finisher, instead. It is clear that Cruz would prefer a Trump nomination to an insider-blessed compromise choice, for reasons I have discussed before.

Any contested-convention scenario would thus surely occur over the intense opposition of the party's two leading presidential candidates (who between them will likely have attracted at least 70 percent of the total popular vote and an even greater share of the delegates), further validating the central premises of both men's candidacies that the "Republican establishment" is out of touch with, and even hostile to, the party grassroots. One can only imagine the protests that would ensue, egged on by talk radio hosts and other populist voices as well as Trump and Cruz themselves, against such a maneuver. Republican members of Congress and other elected officials would likely be threatened with future primary challenges for even suggesting publicly that the top choices of the voters be denied the nomination, much less carrying it out—and such threats are by no means idle in today's Republican Party.

The nomination of Trump in particular might well turn out be such a disastrous event that it would be worth whatever price Republican politicians would need to pay to prevent it from happening. But both Trump and Cruz provided notable reminders last night that the cost of choosing a nominee who is not one of them is likely to be high indeed. While it's comforting for many Republicans—and fun for many analysts—to envision a surprise twist ending to the nomination process in Cleveland this July, such an outcome remains somewhat improbable from today's vantage point. How likely is it that a party leadership that has become scared to death of its own popular base would reject the preferences of that base in the most dramatic possible manner?

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Republican Race After Super Tuesday II

By a staggering coincidence, the logic behind the stop-Trump forces in the Republican Party abruptly shifted from pushing to narrow the competition (in order to concentrate the anti-Trump vote behind a single alternative) to tolerating, and even encouraging, a multi-candidate field immediately after last Tuesday—just at the point when it became clear that Ted Cruz, not Marco Rubio, was best positioned to be the only plausible non-Trump nominee. Over the past week, anti-Trump Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, have indulged in the comforting idea that Cruz, Rubio, and John Kasich would join together with a strategically savvy anti-Trump electorate to form an A-Team dedicated to defeating Trump on multiple fronts in multiple states, denying him a first-ballot delegate majority and allowing the convention to throw the nomination to Rubio, Romney, Paul Ryan, or some other hero of the Republican elite class.

This scheme, though not impossible, has many under-acknowledged deficiencies—not the least of which is that Cruz has no incentive to play along unless he is assured of getting the nomination himself. But last night's primary and caucus results in four states show how it can backfire even as an electoral strategy. The problem is that Rubio and Kasich are such weak candidates that they cannot reliably attract enough votes to place above most states' minimum threshold for winning delegates (usually 15 or 20 percent of the total popular vote in the state). For example, Rubio received 16 percent of the vote in Idaho, 9 percent in Michigan, and 5 percent in Mississippi—netting zero delegates in all three states. Kasich won 24 percent of the Michigan vote (and received 17 delegates there), but won just 9 percent of the Mississippi vote and 7 percent in Idaho.

The continued presence of Rubio and Kasich in the race thus drains anti-Trump votes away from Cruz without denying Trump significant numbers of delegates. There is no evidence that either Rubio or Kasich can actually defeat Trump in any upcoming states except their own home states of Florida and Ohio (and perhaps not even there). Normally, presidential candidates who had achieved either one victory (Rubio) or none (Kasich) over 23 state primaries and caucuses would not still be running active campaigns. But the lure of playing kingmaker (or, better yet, being crowned themselves) at a contested convention has prompted them to soldier on instead, encouraged by Romney and other members of the "Never Trump" brigade.

Despite a lot of hype (perhaps inspired by wishful thinking), it seems that Trump's losses over the weekend in Kansas and Maine (and narrower-than-expected victories in Kentucky and Louisiana) did not reflect a broader decline in his electoral support. A national poll released yesterday had also given heart to Trump's opponents by suggesting that the race was tightly bunched among the four remaining contenders, especially in the states that have not yet held Republican primaries. But the actual election results, both last night and previously, are impossible to reconcile with the results of the survey. Trump may have sufficiently limited appeal to be vulnerable to defeat in a one-on-one race, but he holds a clear and geographically broad advantage in the current four-candidate field, with no sign of imminent collapse.

The biggest change in the Republican race over the past two weeks has been a notable increase in popular support for Ted Cruz, who not only achieved his seventh state-level victory last night by winning the Idaho primary but also placed second to Trump in the three other states, finishing far ahead of Rubio everywhere and even farther ahead of Kasich everywhere but Michigan. But Cruz is unlikely to benefit from strong elite support, at least not soon enough to make much difference. (A Politico story today is headlined "GOP Establishment Creeps Toward Cruz," but the fact that 60 percent of the total number of Republican delegates will have been awarded by this time next week would seem to suggest that a faster means of locomotion might be more appropriate.)

The unacceptability of Cruz as a Trump alternative has done much to power Republican regulars' contested-convention daydream machine; note how David Brooks reassured his readers yesterday that "it's not too late" to stop Trump while simultaneously recommending that Cruz's advances be spurned as if he were a seedy barfly at last call. "Hit the pause button on the rush to Cruz," admonished Brooks, preferring "another path" that "doesn't leave you self-loathing in the morning"—to wit, the Romney A-Team strategy that has only seemed so far to benefit Trump.

If Trump wins the nomination and turns out to be such a cataclysmic disaster that he causes a down-ballot implosion and fatally damages the image of the Republican Party for years among Latinos and other racial minorities, future historians will wonder why Republican officials and thought leaders didn't rally around the strongest alternative candidate while there was still time. Brooks's column, and others like it, will be of immense scholarly value in explaining why.

Monday, March 07, 2016

A Contested Republican Convention: Why Would Cruz Help Block Trump?

I usually write a recap post after presidential debates, but last night's Clinton-Sanders face-off in Flint left me devoid of inspiration. Little new substantive ground was broken (aside from a discussion of the Flint water crisis itself) and both candidates hewed to their now-familiar rhetorical themes and strategies. The Democratic nomination contest is on a glide path to an easy Clinton victory absent a truly major development, and the Tuesday primary in Michigan appears, from available polls, unlikely to provide Sanders with the major upset that he would need to shake up the race.

So let's talk about the Republicans instead.

Last week, Mitt Romney delivered a speech blasting Donald Trump and calling for Republicans to deny him the 2016 presidential nomination. Romney declined to endorse a specific alternative candidate, instead advocating a kind of strategic-voting scheme in which Republican voters supported the strongest non-Trump aspirant in their specific state primaries and caucuses. "Given the current delegate selection process," said Romney, "that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state."

At least for Romney, and presumably for many other anti-Trump Republicans (who have adopted the hashtag #NeverTrump on Twitter to identify themselves), the goal is not to defeat Trump outright in the primaries by delivering a delegate majority to a single rival candidate. Instead, they hope that a robust multi-candidate field denies Trump a majority of his own, preventing him from winning a first-ballot victory at the Republican national convention in Cleveland. Then, the thinking goes, an agreement can be worked out among the non-Trump candidates and their delegates to nominate a superior compromise candidate, perhaps a widely-acceptable Republican who didn't run in the primaries this year. Maybe even someone like Mitt Romney.

This plan contains one obvious concession to reality: the delegate math at this stage makes it very difficult for any candidate other than Trump to gain an outright majority via the primary process, and a multi-candidate field of opposition may well do a better job than a single rival at holding Trump under the needed 1,237 delegates. But it still seems to rely on an awful lot of wishful thinking, politically speaking. Frankly, it's very hard to see exactly how it's supposed to work.

First, it will be very difficult for Republican leaders to explain to the American public why Trump should be denied the nomination if he wins the most states, votes, and delegates of all the candidates. If he falls short of an overall majority, of course, he would not be automatically recognized by the party itself as its official nominee, but he would still be widely seen by the citizenry as having the most legitimate claim to the prize—especially in comparison to someone like Romney or Paul Ryan who didn't even face the voters this year.

Second, any stop-Trump effort at the convention will need to reckon with Ted Cruz, who has pulled into a clear second-place position in the nomination contest. Between them, Trump and Cruz have won 63 percent of the popular vote and 77 percent of the delegates awarded so far—and both proportions may well increase between now and the end of the process, as winner-take-all primaries become more prevalent and also-ran candidates drop out of the race. It's a safe bet that the Trump and Cruz factions will together constitute a majority, and probably a supermajority, of the Republican convention delegates. 

With this in mind, it's worth considering why it would be in Cruz's personal or political interest to be party to any move to deny the nomination to a plurality-winning Trump campaign. Of course, Cruz might be potentially amenable to an agreement that made him the nominee instead—though such a deal seems unlikely, given Republican leaders' personal antipathy toward Cruz and widespread view of him as a weak general-election candidate. But a senator who has already burned most of his bridges in Washington and who has carefully cultivated a public reputation as a principled foe of the Republican leadership also has no obvious reason to help that leadership stop Trump via a procedural maneuver that will be inevitably criticized as democratically illegitimate by a large segment of the party's popular base.

Under the circumstances, Cruz might well be better served by throwing his support to Trump as the acknowledged popular choice of the party electorate than by allying with other candidates to block him. If Trump were to become president, Cruz would then be in a position to enjoy considerable influence within the Republican Party; in the much more likely scenario of a Trump defeat, Cruz could run for the presidency again in 2020 with his anti-Washington credentials intact, appealing to purist conservatives and ex-Trump supporters alike.

It is thus unsurprising that Cruz himself has publicly disavowed the idea of playing for a contested convention. As he told CPAC this weekend, “Any time you hear someone talking about a brokered convention, it is the Washington establishment in a fevered frenzy. They’re really frustrated because all of their chosen candidates, all of the golden children, the voters keep rejecting. And so they’ve seized on this master plan: we go to a brokered convention and the D.C. power brokers will drop someone in who is exactly to the liking of the Washington establishment. If that would happen, we will have a manifest revolt on our hands all across this country.”

These remarks did not appear to receive much attention in the press, but they indicate that the anti-Trump movement—which, to be accurate, is in some respects an anti-Trump-and-Cruz movement—faces odds of success that are quite long indeed. (They also suggest that Cruz may still maintain hopes of gaining a delegate plurality himself, in which case he would obviously demand the nomination as the choice of the Republican electorate.) Republicans might conceivably block Trump by quickly rallying around Cruz, though there seems to be little enthusiasm for doing so—and those who find neither candidate acceptable are unlikely to get their way in Cleveland.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Super Saturday: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. One of the most difficult tasks for analysts of election campaigns is distinguishing true turning points in the race from mere temporary bends in the road. It is tempting to view every new event as an example of the former—hence the media's addiction to the endless proclamation of "game-changing" developments—while most turn out, in retrospect, to be the latter.

If we are feeling particularly adventuresome, we might view Saturday's election returns as a notable shift in momentum. Ted Cruz unexpectedly won the Kansas and Maine caucuses by double-digit margins while placing a close second to Donald Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana. The perception of a surging Cruz was further bolstered by the Louisiana results themselves, in which a large Trump advantage in early and absentee voting was steadily eroded over the course of the evening as Election Day ballots were counted. Trump hung on for a three-point victory, but the near-miss suggested that he had been damaged by recent events—perhaps the bizarre Thursday debate?—and the media treated Cruz as the de facto winning candidate of the day.

With Marco Rubio and John Kasich trailing far behind Trump and Cruz in all four states, one could interpret Saturday's results as setting up a two-person race between a newly vulnerable front-runner and a hard-charging second-place candidate—a familiar trope for journalists. The prospect of Cruz, widely detested by Republican Party regulars in Washington, as representing the sole remaining plausible vehicle for the stop-Trump movement also adds an irresistible dramatic wrinkle to the scenario, which will undoubtedly provide journalists with plenty of fodder for choose-your-poison challenges to party leaders in the coming days—if everyone can even hear themselves speak over the gleeful chortling of schadenfreude-afflicted Democrats.

2. But the "Cruz surge" story runs the risk of over-interpreting yesterday's outcome while failing to recognize that most events do not, as it were, change the game. Squinting at the results from another direction, we might conclude that the states voting last night, with the possible exception of Maine, should always have been friendly territory for any Cruz campaign that had pretensions to national viability. Rather than treat the Cruz candidacy as a newly-energized electoral juggernaut, a skeptical observer might point out that Cruz still lost two more southern states on Saturday—one of which abuts his own home base of Texas—and faces much less welcoming territory from this point forward (since few caucuses or southern primaries remain on the calendar).

If Cruz is going to establish himself as a bona fide challenger to Trump's front-runner status, he needs to perform equally well in a metropolitan state primary outside the South. Perhaps the contest will indeed narrow to a two-man race and he will demonstrate the ability to compete with Trump in states like Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Until then, there is little reason to believe that his improved electoral fortune is seriously threatening Trump's dominant position.

3. Rubio's rather dismal showing, in contrast, is difficult to dispute. Though the cause is not quite clear, he has faded badly as a candidate over the past week. His campaign appears to be directing its time and resources toward a final stand in his home-state Florida primary on March 15, which means that he is likely to suffer further decisive losses in the eight other states voting prior to or on that date. With an overall majority virtually out of reach (Rubio would need to capture 70 percent of the remaining delegates to win a first-ballot nomination), he now seeks merely to rack up enough delegates to force a deadlocked convention and guarantee himself a role to play in deciding the nominee. This is a long shot, though perhaps one worth taking under the circumstances.

4. The Democratic race continues to mosey along with little drama. Sanders holds a clear advantage in caucuses and rural areas outside the South, though the Clinton campaign—learning from its mistakes in 2008—managed to hold down his delegate margins sufficiently in these constituencies to prevent him from cutting into her numerical advantage nationwide. The race may tighten a bit once Clinton's regional base in the South is done voting on March 15, but Clinton has built a virtually insurmountable lead in delegates, and Sanders will be forced at some point in the near future to acknowledge the unforgiving reality of the arithmetic. He will probably remain an active candidate for the remainder of the primary calendar, but risks being viewed as a spoiler if he continues to attack her directly after the race has been effectively decided.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Debate Recap: How's "Never Trump" Supposed to Work?

The Republican presidential debate held last night in Detroit will be remembered most for the moment that the front-runner for the presidential nomination of a major American political party made reference to....well, you already know if you're reading this. But it also revealed the difficulties that the anti-Trump faction of the Republican Party face in preventing Trump's nomination, even as Trump himself was knocked around by a sustained blast of attacks from fellow candidates and Fox News moderators alike.

Now that the field has narrowed to four remaining contenders, each candidate receives enough debate time to establish his distinct political persona. Trump, of course, is already well-defined and sui generis. Marco Rubio is the candidate of the Republican Party regulars—ideological conservatives who are also mindful of team spirit and electability. Ted Cruz is the leader of the conservative purists who are frustrated with the institutional leadership of the Republican Party, especially in Congress, for failing to engineer a conservative policy revolution during the Obama presidency. John Kasich is the chief spokesman for can't-we-all-get-along Republicans who are tired of conflict and intra-party attacks.

Each of the remaining three non-Trump candidates personifies a different case against Trump, ably expressed in their rhetoric last night. According to Rubio, Trump's main flaw is that he's a charlatan who lacks moral character and exhibits serious flaws that will make him a weak general-election candidate. According to Cruz, Trump is primarily unacceptable on ideological grounds—he's a phony conservative who once supported Democrats and can't be trusted to respect right-wing principles. For Kasich, Trump's main deficiency is his slashing style and tone, though Kasich hewed to a "nice guy" strategy by contrasting himself with the front-runner implicitly rather than attacking him openly.

Republican Party voters are thus being presented with a diverse set of grounds for expressing opposition to Trump. In theory, this fits well with a stop-Trump effort within the GOP that has moved from anointing a single non-Trump alternative to simply trying to block his first-ballot nomination at the Republican convention. Perhaps, the thinking goes, three different flavors of anti-Trumpism are better than one at keeping him from winning the delegates he needs for a majority.

But the debate also illustrated the limitations of this strategy. It's difficult to rally Republican voters, activists, and donors around three different candidates at once. No single anti-Trump can dominate the debate or the ensuing media coverage as long as the attention focuses mainly on Trump and is otherwise divided three ways. While most of the delegates will be chosen by the middle of March, the nomination process itself stretches on for three more months; is it really plausible that more than one non-Trump candidate can survive in the race until June?

The more likely eventuality is that the field will narrow further after March 15, when both Rubio and Kasich are in danger of losing their home states. The anti-Trump sentiment in the party will become more concentrated, perhaps with Ted Cruz as its only remaining vessel in the primaries, but the delegate arithmetic will become even more daunting. Unless there is an earthquake-level change in the race, it seems clear that this election is headed straight in the direction of Trump Tower.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Politics of Improvisation

Thanks to Donald Trump, we've entered a moment in American party politics in which actors and observers alike have lost their collective bearings almost everywhere you look. It's as if the American political community has been taken hostage and deposited in an unknown land where nobody has ever ventured. As some cast their eyes toward the horizon, squinting to make out familiar landmarks that might guide them back to safety, others have turned to more pressing matters of survival—simply trying to figure out how to make it through every day without being torn apart by hostile packs of hungry predators.

Such a situation will inevitably lead to wild swings of strategy, impulsive decision-making, and regular expressions of strong emotion. It's a politics of improvisation—nobody knows for sure what to do or what will happen, so they will do or say what seems appropriate for the moment, even if the swift parade of events soon contradicts their previous conclusions.

Elite Republicans, long complacent about the probability of a Trump nomination, have been jolted awake by the results of Super Tuesday. As I suggested yesterday, while the outcome of Tuesday's Republican primaries and caucuses decisively confirmed Trump's front-runner status, its most consequential effect was to virtually eviscerate Marco Rubio's chances of winning a national majority of delegates. With second-place candidate Ted Cruz remaining as an unpalatable alternative who has demonstrated significant weaknesses of his own in appealing to Republican voters outside the South, the party leadership is now effectively facing the prospect of a Trump nomination that may only be stopped by denying him an overall delegate majority and proceeding to a contested convention.

Mitt Romney's speech today was noteworthy not only for its argument that Trump was an unacceptable choice for the Republican nomination but also for explicitly endorsing an anybody-but-Trump approach that requires the continued presence of a multi-candidate opposition to hold Trump's delegate margins down across the electoral map. Romney suggested that no other single candidate can accrue a majority of delegates, and thus Trump cannot be stopped prior to the convention itself. (The Rubio and Kasich campaigns now appear to be proceeding under the same assumption.)

Note that this theory of the race directly contradicts the pre-Super Tuesday conventional wisdom, which held that Cruz and Kasich should both vamoose pronto so that Rubio could face down Trump one-on-one. But abrupt strategic reversals are a hallmark of the improvisational character of this political moment. If Trump is as formidable a threat to the Republican Party as his detractors believe, intellectual consistency is a luxury they cannot currently afford.

Cruz is caught in perhaps the most complex strategic dilemma. Does he, too, play the part assigned to him by Romney and the other anti-Trump Republicans, joining in the chorus of attacks against the front-runner with the goal of delaying the resolution of the contest until the convention? Or does he decide instead that a path forward remains for him in the primaries, if Rubio and Kasich can be dispatched from the race after March 15 losses in their home states of Florida and Ohio? In such an event, Cruz would be left as the lone active rival to Trump for the remaining three months of the primary season, and—even if he failed to win a majority of delegates himself—would no doubt claim that any convention bent on blocking a Trump nomination should rightfully turn to him as the party electorate's authorized second choice.

This much is clear: the nomination process is far too complex for anyone involved to claim mastery over its various provisions and dynamics. So the candidates, along with everyone else, are left to grope around as best they can in an increasingly unforgiving strategic environment.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Super Tuesday: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The media coverage of last night's results focused on Donald Trump's seven state-level victories, but the more important story is the delegate count. Trump did well there too, of course. But the absolute pasting taken by Marco Rubio is possibly just as consequential. By my reckoning, Rubio got about 22 percent of the total popular vote but only 16 percent of the delegates awarded on Tuesday—while Ted Cruz turned 30 percent of the vote into 37 percent of the delegates, thanks to allocation rules in Texas that were particularly favorable to him and a series of first- and second-place finishes in the other southern states. (Trump won about 35 percent of the vote and 43 percent of the delegates.)

2. Rubio now lags Trump in the overall delegate count by more than 200 (336 to 113, according to FiveThirtyEight this afternoon) with 1,237 needed for the nomination. Even if he were to place first in winner-take-all Florida on March 15—by far his best opportunity to gain a large net haul of delegates all at once—he would make up less than half of this gap. The plausible path forward for him is vanishing quickly. However, he will be encouraged to stay in the race by ABCD Republicans ("Anybody But Cruz or Donald") in hopes of a miracle—or at least a contested convention.

3. Cruz, with 234 delegates, is now closer to Trump in the delegate count than Rubio is to him. However, his position is currently inflated by a home-state effect that cannot be replicated in future primaries, and few prominent Republicans are enthusiastic about attempting to rally around Cruz to block Trump. Such an effort might not work anyway; Cruz has yet to demonstrate significant appeal among Republican electorates outside of southern or rural constituencies. He is ill-suited to compete for most of the remaining large delegate prizes on the calendar: California, New York, Illinois. As the second-place candidate, Cruz has no reason to drop out either at this point, but where does he go from here to get 1,000 more delegates?

4. Some ABCD Republicans can't seem to decide whether it's better for their cause for the anti-Trump faction to be divided or unified now that the goal is shifting from defeating Trump outright in the primaries to merely denying him a first-ballot majority at the national convention. A divided field might keep Trump's delegate count below a majority in states with proportional allocation of delegates, but might also make it easier for him to place first with a plurality in winner-take-all states. This is a legitimate dilemma from a formal strategic standpoint (though it's academic in a sense, given the limited ability of party leaders to control the candidates), but has an unmistakable whiff of denial about it politically, feeling like an intermediate stage before final acknowledgement of Trump's dominant position.

5. Surely the most ignored story of the night was Hillary Clinton's smashing popular success, especially in a series of southern states where her electoral margins resembled those received by a popular incumbent officeholder facing a no-name primary challenger. To some degree, this was understandable; the Republican race is more of a "story" in the eyes of the press and public alike. But it also reflects a strain of media punditry that can be summarized as "nothing good ever happens to Hillary Clinton."

Case in point: though Clinton has been the prohibitive favorite on the Democratic side from the beginning and won the South Carolina primary by 47 points, Jake Tapper of CNN opined on Saturday that the Democratic race was actually more competitive than the Republican race. If that were actually true, of course, Clinton's lopsided victories yesterday should have been the big surprise of the evening. Instead, however, they were largely underplayed when not ignored entirely; somebody (it might have been Tapper again) said on CNN last night that the results were good for both candidates—thus revealing an, uh, "innovative" understanding of how two-person races actually work.

6. Relatedly, the media discussion surrounding the Trump phenomenon contains a healthy dose of "better watch out, Democrats!" that is undoubtedly bolstered further by Clinton's status as his presumptive general-election opponent. It's true that Trump's rise has so far defied predictions, and elements of his political message may prove popular in a general election, but let's not take this too far. If Trump is nominated and defeats Clinton in November, it will be under a scenario in which any other plausible Republican candidate would have done the same, while it's much easier to imagine a case in which Trump loses while a Kasich or Rubio might have won.

The Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a deeply flawed and unpopular presidential candidate while simultaneously tearing itself apart internally. The "hot take" that this is actually a bad thing for the Democrats seems forced, to say the least—and ignoring Trump's considerable deficiencies in a general election contest only undermines the anti-Trump case within the GOP at a time when many prominent Republican leaders and conservative commentators are trying to persuade their party's voters to abandon him. There is always uncertainty in politics, but that doesn't mean that anything is likely to happen. Let's be clear: the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton could hardly have been better served than they were by the results in both parties last night.