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?