Cruz to the rescue

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 10-

To: Our readers

  • This week’s primaries
  • Super Cruzday
  • Is Rubio done for?

Delegate Count (AP estimate) — 1,237 to win, 1,589 yet to be awarded

Donald Trump: 382
Ted Cruz: 300
Marco Rubio: 151
John Kasich: 37
Released from dropouts: 14

This week’s primaries — Mar. 8

Idaho will divide 23 of its 32 delegates proportionally among candidates who receive the 20 percent minimum threshold statewide, and six others proportionally by Congressional District, again only to candidates who meet the statewide threshold. Three bonus delegates are pledged to the winner. If any candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, he gets all of the state’s delegates.

Michigan allocates its 56 bound delegates proportionally to candidates who reach the 15 percent minimum threshold statewide. There are three bonus delegates for the winner. Again, a winner above 50 percent of the vote takes all.

Mississippi allocates 28 of its 40 delegates proportionally among the candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote statewide. The rest are awarded by Congressional Districts — a 2-1 split between the first and second place finisher, unless someone gets more than 50 percent in a given district.

Hawaii Republicans caucus at 6 p.m. their time (which is the following day for most Americans). Six of their 19 delegates are allocated proportionally by Congressional District, and the rest proportionally statewide.

President 2016

The voters decide: In European elections, it often happens that voters choose someone who isn’t their favorite, with a mind toward producing a desired outcome. American voters rarely engage in such tactical voting on a mass scale. They pick a candidate and stick to him — sometimes even after he’s dropped out already. (Looking at you, Carson voters.)

But on Saturday, the voters in four states did something that very much resembled tactical voting. And they seem to have done it spontaneously, sending a very clear signal about the direction of the presidential race.

Saturday was Super Cruzday — the day it became clear that Donald Trump is not unstoppable and can be beaten even in states where he seems to be polling well. With all candidates committed to staying in the race, and the party elders unwilling or unable to rally around an adequate alternative to Trump, the voters all but made up their minds for them.

Once the votes were counted, The New York Times’ Nate Cohn posted a chart comparing his publication’s projections for Tuesday’s results, based on polling and state fundamentals, juxtaposed with each candidate’s performance in each state.

Screenshot 2016-03-06 at 4.00.27 PM

The visual is dramatic. Donald Trump slumped a bit in two of the Saturday states, but the projections about his performance turned out to be pretty accurate on the whole. (Perhaps for the wrong reasons, as we will discuss below.) The key takeaway is that Marco Rubio collapsed across the map, and Cruz picked up everything he and Trump lost, and then some.

The argument Cruz brought into CPAC, and which has also mentioned in the last two debates, is that he is the only candidate who can stop Trump, so conservatives need to rally around him. Mitt Romney, in his speech against Donald Trump, recommended that voters support whoever could beat Trump in their state. Rubio voters in Kentucky, but especially in Maine, Kansas, and Louisiana, seem to have bought this argument in large numbers.

As a result, Cruz obliterated Trump in Kansas, the state where Trump had already seemed most vulnerable but still led in the polls. He smashed Trump in Maine, where polling was scarce but a Trump victory seemed very likely based on the behavior of other New England states and the Trump endorsement by Gov. Paul LePage. And Cruz came within a few inches of beating Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana as well, despite Trump’s large double-digit polling advantages in both states.

Why did this happen? The urgency of preventing a Trump nomination was clearly foremost on voters’ minds. Part of the reason it was Cruz and not Rubio surely has to do with the states that were in play and the campaigns’ work within them. If they were taking Romney’s advice, Cruz was the natural alternative. But probably part of it had to do with Cruz’s impressive debate performance on Thursday — by far his best yet. And part of it probably had to do with the increasing (and perhaps necessary) ribaldry with which Rubio has lately engaged Trump in order to, as he put it, punch back at the bully.

Rubio’s attacks on Trump — the personal ones, but also the line of attack that Trump is a con artist — rattled the businessman at the very beginning of last Thursday’s debate. Trump never recovered after Rubio’s first jab, and between Rubio and Cruz became the victim of a tag-team thrashing. Rubio’s attacks focused more on Trump’s career and persona, Cruz’s on his evident lack of conservatism. And Rubio’s presence on the debate stage was probably necessary to make Cruz’s punches land.

Yet Trump’s bullying — “little Marco,” he kept calling him — combined with the fact that Rubio was obviously suffering from a cold, have probably have hurt Rubio. That Cruz won that debate was the nearly unanimous verdict of the pundits. And John Kasich, not Rubio, was the clear second-place. With that debate and in the campaign leading up to it, Rubio got into the mud to wrestle the pig, but dirtied himself up a lot more than Cruz had to in the process.

Political reporters typically refer to such Pyrrhic victories as Rubio won in that debate as “murder-suicides.” One could also think of it as a self-sacrificing attack that takes out the real threat to the party. Either way, the voters seem to be making up their minds about who will be the Trump alternative, and it’s putting immense pressure on Rubio to quit the race. His argument for staying in: There will be other states — winner-take-all Florida, especially — where I’m the guy in a better position to stop Trump. But it remains to be seen whether the voters will rise to the occasion there and keep following Romney’s advice, or simply settle on Cruz.

Is Rubio out of it? On Sunday, Rubio got a bit of a respite from the apparent desperation of the night before. With a resounding majority, he took all 23 of Puerto Rico’s delegates, so that over the weekend he only got about ten fewer than Trump. Still, he remains under increasing pressure to drop out. His nearly winless performance so far in the primary season (he did also win the caucus in Minnesota last Tuesday) has opened up a delegate deficit that even a victory in Florida can’t erase.

Things will likely get worse after this week’s contests, because, with the possible exception of Hawaii (completely unpolled), they don’t fit the profile of strong Rubio places.

Rubio’s problem, at heart, seems to be not of a debate gaffe here or there, or a poorly received phallic joke, nor even of the wrong states being in the wrong order on the calendar. Rather, it is of apparently shoddy campaign fundamentals that have cost him dozens of delegates in primaries he didn’t win. This has been the silent killer of his campaign.

Even by Super Tuesday, the impression was sinking in that the Rubio team just doesn’t have what it takes on election day. That is why everyone fears a Trump win in winner-take-all Florida on March 15. The Cruz campaign’s decision to open offices in Florida exacerbates those fears.

Rubio’s near miss at defeating Trump in Virginia on Super Tuesday was tragic for him, but actually the least of his problems. It might have represented the best anyone could have done, given the double-digit deficit he was facing in the polls. The fact that Rubio wasn’t the nominal winner in Virginia only caused him to win one delegate less than Trump, so it’s not that big a deal.

The real malpractice of his campaign has come in states Rubio was not expected to win. The cause of his nearly prohibitive delegate deficit at this point is his just barely failing to reach the delegate threshold in four states where he was competing. In many states that voted recently, at-large delegates are allocated proportionally, but only to candidates who reach a certain threshold. For example, in Alabama, Texas, and Vermont, only candidates who finish with more than 20 percent get a share, and those with 19.9 percent get none. In Maine, the threshold is 10 percent.

The worst possible result, of course is to spend time and money and yet finish just below the threshold. Yet in each of those states mentioned, Rubio did just that. He came up just one or two points short of qualifying for the share of delegates to which his vote share would have otherwise entitled him. In each case, this meant that Trump (and of course Cruz) received delegates for free at his expense. The time and money he spent in all of those states was for naught (except for the occasional delegate won at the Congressional District level).

That this has happened four times now is a sign that the Rubio operation is doing something wrong in setting its goals for voter contact, spending, and candidate time. For Rubio to miss out on probanly more than 30 delegates in this way is to let the leading candidates run away with the same number, so the price of these small failures adds up quickly. That’s worth more everything he got in Puerto Rico right there. 

This is why Rubio finds himself where he is now. The conventional wisdom that there would always be money and support for a non-Trump, non-Cruz candidate has come under intense pressure from the reality that Trump is well on his way to winning the nomination and someone has to stop him now. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose foreign policy views are more in line with Rubio’s, and who once jokingly spoke of murdering Cruz on the Senate floor, has come around to the position that Cruz might have to be the guy.

GOP establishment: The endorsement of Trump two weeks ago by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was quite a shock, but perhaps it should not have been.

It should underscore for conservative voters that many in the establishment GOP are on the edge of dutifully lining up behind the frontrunner, even if it’s Trump, either in the name of preserving party unity or getting something out of it for themselves (which sometimes means the same thing).

Many conservatives — and certainly most of the ones who attended CPAC last week — would view this as a shortsighted placement of party ahead of principle. Trump placed a distant third in the CPAC straw poll with 15 percent, and some of the conference speakers’ talk of rallying around the Republican flag no matter what left a bitter taste.

Mitt Romney’s jeremiad against Trump may have put some spine back into the establishment politicians considering throwing their lot in with him. Florida Gov. Rick Scott may have flirted with endorsing Trump before pulling back from the edge. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach did endorse Trump, only to see him flounder in Kansas. Newt Gingrich still seems to be flirting with the idea of supporting Trump. For Battlestar Galactica fans, it’s as if the cylons are in our midst, waiting to awaken.

But an already fragmented GOP cannot not survive the split between its conservative base and its establishment that would result if the latter tries to put lipstick on the pig and frame Trump as an acceptable nominee. It would mark the end of the Reagan Revolution, and for many the end of their involvement in Republican politics.

Finally, Rubio’s collapse, even if it clears a way for Cruz to defeat Trump, leaves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell facing a dilemma. If there is no remaining path for Rubio — and it is quite difficult to see one at this point — then he has to choose between the candidate he dislikes most (Cruz) and the one that he seems to understand will irreparably divide and destroy the Republican Party (Trump).

It may be possible that neither Cruz nor Trump can defeat Hillary Clinton (it is much clearer from the polls that Trump cannot defeat her). But for now Cruz now seems to be the better bet by a long way, no matter how acrimonious his inside-baseball dealings with Senate colleagues.

McConnell is a practical man, and he has shown an ability to swallow his pride before. In 2010, he went all-in for Rand Paul, who had defeated his protege in the Senate primary. In 2015, he helped Matt Bevin become Kentucky’s governor after his surprising primary win. Bevin is the very same man who had (from McConnell’s perspective) disrespectfully primaried him only a year earlier. He will again be put to the test.

Trump weakness: The difference between the early vote and election-day vote in Louisiana deserves a closer look, because it demonstrates the extent to which recent events have wounded Trump.

In Louisiana, early voting ran from February 20 to 27. That means most of the early vote had been cast even before Trump’s first truly disastrous debate performance on the night of February 25. All of it had been cast before he played dumb on national television about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. Probably as a result, the early vote in Louisiana was very heavily pro-Trump, as polls had predicted, but the election day vote — not well covered by polling despite the changed circumstances — was dramatically different.

Nate Silver shared the early-vote tallies that went up on the board at the beginning of the evening:

Trump 46.7%
Cruz 22.9%
Rubio 20.1%
Kasich 3.7%


But the much larger number of votes actually cast on the day of the election looked like this:


Cruz 40.9%
Trump 40.5%
Rubio 9.4%
Kasich 6.8%

This is why Cruz nearly caught Trump in the overall vote count as the night progressed.

If you read the tree-rings, Cruz’s net 24-point gain in balloting against Trump occurred in Louisiana between the last week of February and the first week of March. That’s a dramatic swing, apparently caused by dramatic events. 

One way to think about this is to imagine that a similar shift occurred in all the other Mar. 5 states as well, and think of what Saturday would have looked like if not for the recent events that caused Trump’s decline.

Another way is to think about the upcoming primary states where polling has been spotty and hypothesize a similar swing.

Will it show up again this week, on March 8, when Idaho, Hawaii, Michigan and Mississippi go to the polls? Trump leads in the few available polls (one poll shows Kasich beating him in Michigan), but that was also the case on Saturday.

If Trump’s support proves to be as soft as it looked on Saturday, and there’s really a national bank-run on Rubio’s candidacy, Trump’s momentum could be blunted further still. But if Super Cruzday was just a fluke, we’ll know soon enough.