Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
March 23, 2016
After split primary decisions on Tuesday, here’s where the GOP primary campaign stands: Polls show the two front-runners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are the least likely to win the Presidency in November, while the remaining candidate with the best chance, John Kasich, is being told to get out of the race. No wonder Democrats are elated.
Mr. Trump continues to have a large delegate lead after his 47% rout in Arizona on Tuesday, with 739 of the 1,237 needed to secure the nomination and about 944 not yet allocated. Mr. Cruz has 465 delegates after his 69% win in Utah, but he has little chance of getting a delegate majority before the July convention. Mr. Kasich trails badly with 143 delegates.
The goal of both Messrs. Kasich and Cruz is thus to deny as many delegates as possible to Mr. Trump to force a contested convention. The question for those desperate to beat Mr. Trump is what is the best strategy to deny the businessman more delegates.
Mr. Cruz says Mr. Kasich should drop out so he can take on Mr. Trump one-on-one. The Texas Senator has won nine states and is now picking up endorsements from the same GOP elites he has long claimed to disdain—most recently Jeb Bush. Irony alert: Mr. Cruz, who helped unleash the anti-GOP populism that has propelled Mr. Trump, now wants GOP elites to help him defeat Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cruz’s problem is that it isn’t clear he can beat Mr. Trump one-on-one, especially in the Pacific coast and Northeast states still to be contested. The Texan’s victories have come in the South, the Plains states and low-turnout caucuses like Maine’s. Mr. Cruz finished back in the pack in New England outside Maine, and the states coming up include Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland. Mr. Trump wins the nomination if he wins most of those states.
Mr. Cruz does well among the most conservative GOP voters, but the exit polls say he loses to Mr. Trump among somewhat conservatives and moderates. The same polls show that Mr. Trump, not Mr. Cruz, is the second choice of many Kasich voters. This isn’t surprising given that Mr. Cruz has spent two years telling mainstream Republicans that he doesn’t need or want their votes.
Will those voters now come when Mr. Cruz calls? Perhaps, but Mr. Cruz shows no signs of adapting his message to these new circumstances. In Arizona he tried to outflank Mr. Trump on the right on immigration—a hopeless task. To win the nomination he has to broaden his appeal inside the GOP.
The case for Mr. Kasich staying in the race is that he has a better chance than Mr. Cruz of stealing moderately conservative voters from Mr. Trump in the more moderate states. In the states that allocate delegates proportionally, the Ohio Governor can reduce Mr. Trump’s margins. The risk is that he and Mr. Cruz will divide the anti-Trump vote in winner-take-all states. But that only matters if Mr. Cruz could win those states on his own.
The other case for Mr. Kasich is that he’s the only candidate consistently beating Hillary Clinton in head-to-head November polling. Five polls released in the last week show him beating her by at least four points, and a new Quinnipiac survey shows him winning 47%-39%. Mr. Cruz loses 45%-42% in the Quinnipiac poll, and Mr. Trump loses by six points. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, Mr. Trump loses by 10.5 points and Mr. Cruz by 2.3.
Polls this far out from an election often change, and Mrs. Clinton is a weak candidate. But Messrs. Cruz and Trump manage the amazing feat of being disliked even more than Mrs. Clinton, who has a net unfavorable rating of minus-13 in the March WSJ/NBC poll. Mr. Cruz comes in at minus-18 and Mr. Trump at minus-39. Mr. Kasich is a net positive 19.
The anti-Kasich voices say this doesn’t matter because Trump and Cruz voters would revolt if Mr. Kasich or someone else is the nominee—as if Trump supporters would feel any better if Mr. Cruz won the nomination at the convention. And if Mr. Trump wins, some 30% of the GOP electorate say they won’t even consider voting for him.
Our point is that, after the last three months, whoever wins the nomination will inherit a divided GOP and have a reduced chance of winning in November. Mr. Cruz will have a hard time winning any states that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 given changing demographics and his conservatives-only message. Mr. Trump could attract blue-collar Democrats, but his temperament and utter lack of knowledge could also lead to a wipe out that endangers the GOP House majority.
Mr. Kasich has to show he can win more delegates and states, and Wisconsin and New York in April will be crucial tests. He’ll have a hard time justifying his campaign if he is washed out there. Then again, if the nomination goes to an open convention, and if neither Mr. Cruz nor Mr. Trump can get a majority, perhaps the GOP delegates will want to consider a nominee who can beat Mrs. Clinton. Sounds crazy, we know, but isn’t the purpose of a political party to win elections?
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