By Shane Goldmacher
March 14, 2016
It sounds like a nightmare for Donald Trump’s opponents: he sweeps Ohio and Florida on Tuesday and storms ahead with more than half the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination.
But for Ted Cruz, it would be a dream — if it forces Marco Rubio and John Kasich to quit — that delivers the two-man contest he’s been wanting for months.
“If we are able to get him head-to-head in a two-person race,” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager said, “then we will win this race.”
The math is not in Cruz’s favor: He’ll likely be at least 250 delegates behind Trump, and essentially need to sweep the rest of the way. But his team is projecting confidence, trying to convince rivals’ supporters to unite behind the candidate with the most victories against the front-runner so far.
Indeed, amid escalating violence at Trump’s events and a hardening of “#NeverTrump” opposition within the GOP, Cruz’s team says the New York businessman has a firm ceiling that’s below 50 percent support and that a cleared field still leaves Cruz a shot.
“All we have to do in a two-person is we need to win 55-45,” said Chris Wilson, Cruz’s research director and pollster. “We do that the rest of the way, we’re the nominee.”
It’s part bullish bravado — and part studied analytics.
“I don’t want to put any clippings on our opponents’ locker room but I’ll say this: In surveys that we’ve taken in a two-man race versus a four-man race, in the states after March 12, we see, of the 70 percent that’s available [among current non-Trump voters], we literally see 90 percent of that vote to come to us,” Roe said.
But that consolidation has to happen fast. Cruz’s top strategists say they believe Cruz must win, and decisively, in Arizona and Utah, the next states to vote on March 22.
That was the thinking behind Cruz’s more inclusive tone at last Thursday’s debate, when Cruz explicitly reached out to Rubio’s and Kasich’s supporters. “There are only two of us that have a path to winning the nomination, Donald and myself,” Cruz said at one point. “I want to invite you, if you've supported other candidates, come and join us.”
Roe called it “a permission slip to join our campaign” in the spin room afterward.
“The first ones are critical,” Roe said of Arizona and Utah. “It is critical to win some of those states to reset the race.”
Cruz quietly began buying ads in Arizona over the weekend, reserving $200,000 over 10 days, making him the first to buy ads in any state that votes after March 15. Cruz hired a top Arizona strategist six months ago, zeroing in on its potential significance as an inflection point on the calendar as early as last September.
Immigration, Trump’s signature issue, is likely to be a driver of the Arizona primary and Trump has won the backing of former Gov. Jan Brewer and anti-immigration leader Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Utah, meanwhile, holds a caucus closed only to Republican voters the same day — the type of elections Cruz has most exceled in (Arizona is a closed primary) — and Cruz also just scored the endorsement of influential Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Utah awards its 40 delegates proportionally but has a backdoor winner-take-all provision if any candidate gets 50 percent, which is almost guaranteed to happen in a two-man race.
After those two elections, the calendar slows to a crawl. Only a single state will vote in the following four weeks, Wisconsin, where Roe said he began dispatching staff three weeks ago.
The belief in Cruz world is that the full weight of the Republican apparatus — both movement conservatives and elites disgusted with Trump — will unite during that lull to propel him in Wisconsin and the half-dozen other states that follow in late April.
The path is actually far narrower than the Cruz team lets on.
Cruz, for instance, is likelier to pass Trump in delegates than he is to reach 1,237 delegates himself. POLITICO’s calculations show that he would need to win as many as 750 to 800 of the 910 remaining delegates to be bound after March 15 to clinch — a near impossibility. He would instead need to rely upon the more than 100 unbound delegates that will arrive in Cleveland, or, more likely, the chaos of a second ballot.
Another key is the other states that vote on Tuesday — Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — which offer a combined 193 delegates, more than Florida and Ohio. Cruz must rack up delegates there to keep Trump within reach. Cruz is especially hunting for delegates in Missouri, where the winner of each congressional districts receives an unusually high five delegates. He held four events across the state on Saturday, after campaigning in Illinois Friday night and in North Carolina on Sunday.
Another problem for Cruz is the nomination map itself. As Rubio has repeatedly pointed out, the states after March 15 are less favorable to Cruz’s religious brand of conservatism. Many of the most evangelical states have already voted. And Cruz has mostly struggled in the northeast (and Trump has mostly romped) as Connecticut and Rhode Island are still to come, as are nearby Mid-Atlantic states including delegate-rich Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, plus New York and New Jersey.
On the Cruz campaign’s working map, they cede New Jersey and its 51 winner-take-all delegates to Trump, as well as presume Trump carries his home state of New York. The latter state offers a massive 95 delegates, but because it awards many of them by congressional district, Cruz’s team says it believes he has a shot to keep the margin at least somewhat close, especially since the primary is closed to only registered Republican voters. Heavily Democratic districts in New York City make some seats especially unpredictable.
“Arizona looks good, Utah looks good, Wisconsin looks good,” Wilson, the Cruz pollster, said of the next three states that vote. “I mean you can look at the models right down to the congressional district level in California and see very clearly how this works itself out. And that’s even if you give New Jersey to Trump and you give Trump a majority in New York. Even allowing for those two potentially unlikely scenarios, if we gather a lot of momentum, we still pass 1,237.”
“Not until June [7th],” Wilson said, “But we still do.”
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