The talking heads on Fox News and on other media outlets were busy spinning yesterday’s election results, in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump split four contests, as evidence that this has become a two-person race for the Republican nomination. Some pundits went further, arguing that the results indicate the first signs of a backlash against Trump’s candidacy. It’s not clear, however, whether the results were as good for Cruz as the Republican Party establishment would have one believe. Even as another 150 delegates came off the board, by my unofficial count Cruz won 69 compared to Trump’s 53 – a net gain of only 16 delegates which still leaves Cruz trailing The Donald by 82 delegates, and with most of Cruz’ best states behind him. The fact is that Cruz lost to Trump in two states – Kentucky and Louisiana – that contained significant numbers of the social conservatives that Cruz has relied on to carry his campaign so far. Moreover, his victories came in caucus states, not primaries, which does not build confidence that he can broaden his coalition. Trump (bombastic yes, but no fool) surely understands this, which is why during his “victory” press conference last night he openly called for a two-candidate contest between him and Cruz. Trump understands that as the race moves to the industrial Midwest, Cruz’ support is likely to tail off.
At this point, then, and at the risk of being an outlier (not for the first time, of course) I am not persuaded that yesterday’s results demonstrates that the Stop Trump movement that I described in my last post is having an effect. We saw a similar media reaction after Cruz won in Iowa, if you’ll recall. When the Donald finished second there after polls showed him leading, it was was viewed by most pundits as a stinging setback. The reality, however, is that given the political terrain in Iowa, a second-place finish by The Donald was, in my view, the first evidence that he was a candidate to be reckoned with. In any case, the pundits have predicted that Trump was losing momentum before. Eventually they may be right. Of course, I’m not a strong believer in electoral momentum, unless one defines it as a winnowing of the field, in which case election results can appear to bolster some candidates at the expense of others.
Setback or not, the Republican Party leaders aren’t taking any chances. Mitt was back on the airwaves today, making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to renew his attack on Trump, which inevitably led all the talking heads to ask the Mittster whether he would take the Sherman pledge not to run if nominated. For the record, Mitt refused to say he would reject a party draft, even while making it clear that he had no intention of running on his own and fully expected to endorse a Republican candidate not named Trump. The thought of the Mittster charging forth on his white horse to rescue the GOP from the evil clutches of Trumpism makes even the most sober-minded pundits swoon. Please, please, let it happen they must be thinking!
Meanwhile poor Marco Rubio had a disastrous day, finishing no higher than third in any of the four contests (he finished 4th, behind John Kasich, in the Maine caucuses) and garnering only 20 delegates. On the plus side, however, he picked up key endorsements from party stalwarts like Bob Dole and Sam Brownback, which again shows that endorsements are very powerful predictors of electoral success, unless they aren’t. Rubio appears determined to stay in the race until his home state of Florida votes on March 15, even though Cruz has now targeted Florida as a must-win state as well. It is not inconceivable that they will split the non-Trump vote there. (As I write this, I received a breathless email from Team Marco saying: “The new survey by one of the nation’s most-respected pollsters has Marco trailing Trump by just a few points — and closing fast!” It’s just a flesh wound, folks.) Even the betting markets seem to have written him off, with Kasich now considered more likely to win the nomination than is Marco.
And what of Kasich? As regular readers know, I thought he won (as much as anyone can “win” these things) the two most recent Republican debates through a combination of his policy knowledge, adult persona and references to his ability to work across party lines. Tellingly, not a single media pundit that I know of agreed with that assessment, and in fact most post-debate write-ups failed to mention his name. And perhaps with good reason. Yesterday he slouched his way through another unimpressive set of election results, finishing last in three of the four contests and winning only 10 delegates and, not for the first time, was an afterthought (if that!) in most media election wrap-up stories. And yet hope for the perpetually optimistic candidate springs eternal. The latest poll out of Michigan, which votes on Tuesday, has him leading – yes, leading! – in that state, 33%-31% over The Donald (what did I say about relying on one poll to gauge the state of a race?) If he wins Michigan, and follows that up with a victory in his home state of Ohio (a winner-take- all contest) a week later, he will undoubtedly proclaim himself as the heir to the not-Donald vote. And he could very well be correct.
Even as Republican Party talking heads wring their hands regarding the impending breakup of the GOP and plot to stop Trump, voters continue to turn out in record numbers and, I think, in large part due to Trump’s candidacy. Once again turnout was up, and by a lot, in all four Republican contests yesterday compared to the turnout numbers from four and eight years ago. With the exception of Vermont, Republicans have seen turnout increase in every nominating contest so far. The Democrats must wish they were the party on the ropes like this! In yesterday’s three Democratic contests, turnout was down again from 2008, even as Hillary Clinton continued her methodical march toward clinching the nomination. Although Bernie Sanders won two of the three contests, she won 55 delegates to his 49. That won’t stop the FeelTheBern crowd from proclaiming victory, of course, but at this point it appears nothing short of criminal charges are going to prevent her from winning the delegate race.
And so the road show continues. Republicans vote in Puerto Rico’s primary today, and then on Tuesday both parties head to Michigan and Mississippi and for Republicans, Idaho and Hawaii too. On the Republican side there are 150 delegates at stake. If Kasich pulls off the improbable and wins Michigan, thus further fracturing the non-Trump vote, I expect the drumbeats for Mitt to grow only louder. Oh, be still my beating heart!