Trump’s next must-win: Pennsylvania, but with a twist

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 17-
  • A Kasich-Cruz alliance
  • Rig the convention for Trump?
  • Tuesday’s races

The alliance: Big news came just Sunday night — John Kasich and Ted Cruz entered into a detente whereby Kasich leaves Indiana to Cruz, and Cruz leaves Oregon and New Mexico to Kasich.

The deal sends a few clear signals. First, it gives a sense of just how bad Tuesday is going to be for both Cruz and Kasich. Not a surprise, as Trump must and will win all five of the states that are voting. But this might also be a hint that Team Kasich doesn’t expect to do too well in Connecticut.

Second, it shows that Cruz is, to some degree, backing down in the face of a difficult reality. He could win far more delegates in Oregon and New Mexico than Kasich ever would in Indiana. But if he can’t make Kasich step aside and send a clear hint to supporters to vote Cruz, then neither of them will reach the convention.

What’s more, the Indiana delegates have already been elected to go to the convention, and they appear to be, on the whole, a very pro-Kasich group. (The vote on May 3 merely binds them for the first ballot at convention.) So if this Cruz-Kasich mission is accomplished and a brokered convention results, then Cruz might actually be helping Kasich by winning the state.

So it’s a prisoner’s dilemma, and Cruz has just volunteered to take 40 lashes so that they can both be released. But he really has no choice.

If Kasich’s Indiana voters actually do take the hint and make a tactical vote for Cruz, the odds are very good that Cruz wins Indiana and nearly all of its 57 delegates. The latest public poll has him trailing Trump by just five points, 40 to 35 percent, with Kasich at 20 percent. Other private polls show a closer race between the top two. But the point is, a unified anti-Trump front can probably stop him cold in Indiana.


Rig it for Trump? The new question circling among Republican campaigners and conservative activists is whether the RNC might rig its convention in Donald Trump’s favor. It sounds outlandish, but hear us out.

RNC bigwigs need to balance two evils here. A Trump nomination will damage the party and harm all downticket races in 2016. But an apparent coup — a convention in which the nomination seems to be stolen by delegates — could have a similar effect. Party bosses need to judge which outcome is worse.

Neither choice looks very good. At 65 to 70 percent unfavorable, Trump’s unpopularity is far beyond that of Hillary Clinton, and frankly beyond that of any other nominee in modern history. As one would expect under those conditions, he consistently loses to Clinton by wide margins in every poll. And going back to at least 2004, polls taken in April tend to be correct about the ultimate outcome of every presidential election.

The only difference is that in this case, there are zero polls suggesting Trump has any chance of winning, whereas at least a small sprinkling of polls at this stage in their respective cycles hinted that Mitt Romney and John McCain would be competitive.

So that sounds pretty bad. On the other hand, there’s no question that a substantial number of Trump’s supporters will quit on politics altogether if the nomination is “stolen” from him, and he might even personally intervene to cause new trouble for the party through his famous ability to get himself on television constantly.

So how do you handle that? By nudging him over the finish line at the convention. Hence the fear that the party bosses will choose to do just that, rather than letting the delegates work their will.

Then again, they may not. It’s just that this is not the sort of dilemma you want to face, and it isn’t one that Republicans expected to face when this cycle began. They had a large number of promising candidates. So what happened?

Trump managed to elbow his way past them all for a variety of reasons. We’ll concern ourselves here just with the ones related to the election itself.

One issue was that the field was so large, which meant Trump was able to win very big in New Hampshire with just 35 percent of the vote and in South Carolina with just 32 percent. The second issue is the quirky nature of delegate allocation rules. Delegates were often awarded in a way designed to magnify small victories rather than distribute delegates according to popular support. Thus, Trump could win 100 percent of the delegates in South Carolina despite winning just 32 percent of the vote.

And of course, the third reason was Marco Rubio’s unwillingness to drop out of the race until it was almost too late to make a difference. Trump’s triumph in Missouri, and probably the magnitude of his win in Illinois (54 of 69 delegates) was a direct result of Rubio staying in after Super Tuesday, despite knowing he didn’t really have a serious campaign operation running anywhere.

Finally, Ted Cruz’s bad relationship with the GOP establishment has left a lot of party bosses in a situation where they are unwilling to support him. Scott Walker didn’t mind, of course, but Mike Pence may well not endorse out of fear for what happens to him in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Which brings us to where we are now. Republicans are staring into an abyss. They can nominate the guy Clinton could even beat from prison, but if they don’t, they will poison the well for perhaps up to half of his 10 million most fanatical followers. And Republicans might have a better shot in this election if they bite the bullet and cut Trump off at the knees, but then Trump can stick around and haunt them as long as he wants.

Then again, if you nominate Trump, you’re also setting back conservatism. Trump’s announcement that he wants to weaken the GOP’s right-to-life platform is just an early hint of the ways in which he will be able to undo the party’s Reagan revolution from the inside if he becomes the nominee.

One way to look at this is to say that if Trump had gotten into the race to help Clinton, he couldn’t have done any better. Her odds of becoming presidency might have been 30 percent last August, but now they are closer to 70 percent.

Still, this isn’t all on Trump. Republicans had this coming. Both the party leadership and the conservatives, each in their own way, taught their base to be outraged and angry at Democrats rather than conservative and principled, and please keep those donations coming in so that we can stop the Democrats. Conservatives (Cruz especially) taught them to make unreasonable demands rather than plod along with incremental progress.

This is the end of that road, and it turns out it leads back to President Clinton.


After New York: Donald Trump did even better in New York than we had expected, pulling down 89 delegates instead of the 80 we had perceived as his target. This not only represents a bullet successfully dodged, but it also gives him nine more delegates of wiggle room than he had previously.

But that’s still not a lot of wiggle room. All it will take for him to slide into plurality territory is one unexpected bad day between now and early June, and suddenly we are locked into a contested convention.

Trump’s magic number now is 391 (it could be a bit more, depending on the estimate you use), not far from where we expected it would be. He will likely close a lot of that gap on Tuesday, but the question (as always) is by precisely how much. That’s because he is expected to get less than half the delegates (or no delegates at all) from several of the contests that follow — New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana, to be precise.

Once again, it’s becoming clearer — and will be even clearer than that after Tuesday — that it all comes down to Indiana next week. If Trump can win there, he has a decent shot at going to convention with a majority of delegates, or at least a number so close that he can cajole, bribe beg — whatever — a few of them and and win on the first ballot at convention.

If he cannot win Indiana or make up the difference with a huge, unexpected victory somewhere, he will likely enter with some number less than the majority of 1,237, and risk having much of his support fall away after delegates become unbound after the first ballot. The ongoing state convention process, in which Cruz loyalists are taking up more and more of the bound Trump delegate slots (the most recent example was in Maine), underscores the fact that Trump will lose hundreds of delegates after that first convention ballot. It really is 1,237 or bust.


April 26: Trump should win all of Tuesday’s contests. He really has to, or else he’s cooked. And we feel safe in predicting he will win everywhere, but his future could depend on how much he wins by, and whether the unbound delegates chosen in Pennsylvania are at all sympathetic to his cause.


Connecticut (28): Trump will win statewide for sure. But there are several more delegates in it for him if he gets an actual majority — that is, more than 50 percent. If not, he will lose out on at least seven of the delegates. The winner of each congressional district gets three more, and there’s an outside possibility that Kasich might wrest a district from him. We assumed 25 of 28 delegates would be bound to Trump when mapping out the contests a few weeks back.


Delaware (16): There isn’t much data to go on here. It’s a must-win contest for Trump, whose ability to become the nominee probably vanishes if he loses. John Kasich has by far the best chance of catching him in Delaware, which is winner-take all. But the Kasich campaign’s track record to date in grinding out victories outside of Ohio is pretty lackluster — even in Vermont he couldn’t quite pull it off. A bet on Trump in Delaware seems pretty sensible, but anyone wanting to stop him should vote Kasich.


Maryland (38): Trump’s best performance has been in states and counties where Republicans tend to be socially disconnected and are predominantly lower-income whites living amidst large minority populations. On that score, Maryland is natural Trump country.

Maryland awards all 14 delegates to the statewide winner, plus three apiece to the winner in each of its eight congressional districts. Our estimate for Trump in Maryland was 30 delegates, but that’s really just an imperfect middle point between 32 and 29. He is unlikely to lose more than three of the state’s horribly gerrymandered (by Democrats) congressional districts.

Maryland delegates are bound for the first two votes at the national convention, unlike most other states which bind them for only one vote.

Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary, by the way, will likely go to Chris Van Hollen, who will be a prohibitive favorite in November no matter what.


Pennsylvania (71): This is tomorrow’s most important race, and its outcome won’t be immediately obvious for anyone who doesn’t pay very close attention. The key is not the statewide vote, but the separate vote on the 54 unbound district delegates.

The outcome in the Keystone State could either build on or cancel out Trump’s overperformance in New York last week. The reason is that although 17 delegates are bound and awarded to the statewide winner (which will surely be Trump), the delegates in each individual district are chosen as unbound and voted on by name, with no candidate affiliation printed on the ballot.

Historically, many Pennsylvania voters simply don’t bother to choose delegates, which appear at the very end of the ballot after primaries for other races. (Tuesday also serves as Pennsylvania’s regular primary election.)

Remember: Our estimates from two weeks ago in mapping out the remaining contests (which showed Trump falling short) assumed that Trump would get 80 delegates in New York (he got 89) and 50 in Pennsylvania. That means he has to be aiming for at least 33 unbound delegates out of the congressional districts if he wants to stay on track.

Trump has endorsed delegates who are running for 41 of the 54 district slots, and Cruz has endorsed for only 27. That might seem to weigh in Trump’s favor — and it might, ultimately — but it’s more complicated than that. Some delegates are local elected officials who will probably win win by dint of their own name recognition. At least one district has only three candidates, who will win by default, and none of them are committed to Trump. Some delegate candidates are just waiting to be wooed until after the race is over.

The delegate candidates least likely to win are the ones who have said they will vote however their district votes. The reason is that voters savvy enough to reach the bottom of the ballot are likely to be voting with a candidate’s slate in hand, or else for someone they actually know.

Trump’s ceiling for district delegates is probably about 46, but he’d certainly be happy with anything above 30. Less than that and he’s back to where he was before — needing both a win in Indiana and an unlikely, overwhelming California blowout.

Also of note: The other big race in Pennsylvania will be on the Democratic side, for the Senate nomination. Former lobbyist Katie McGinty, who enjoys the full support of the state’s Democratic establishment, is expected to defeat former Rep. Joe Sestak and go on to face Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Toomey is favored to win in current polls, but that could change quickly if Trump gets the nomination.


Rhode Island (19): Trump would have to win 67 percent of the vote in either of the state’s two congressional districts to get more than one delegate out of it, so it’s likely he will get just two of the six. The remaining 12 statewide delegates will be allotted proportionally, so our estimate of twelve delegates for Trump (just over 40 percent) there was almost certainly too generous. He will more likely get nine.