Saturday, April 30, 2016

It’s Indiana or Bust for the Stop-Trump Movement (Seriously This Time)

by Erich Straub (contributing editor)

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the NeverTrump movement is getting really, really desperate. The calendar of states is running out and Trump is inching closer and closer to what seems like an inevitability. That’s exactly the narrative he is trying to paint, and it’s working, much to the chagrin of the establishment which has reluctantly staked its hopes of stopping him on Ted Cruz and/or John Kasich, and/or insert any name that doesn’t rhyme with thump.

The two men left standing, who have for weeks been splitting the non-Trump vote, have now come right out and announced that they will form an alliance – sort of – to try to ensure that Trump does not get to the requisite number of 1,237 by July 17. Not only was the announcement clumsily handled, the alliance seems to be built on a faulty foundation. While Kasich has left Indiana to campaign in Washington and New Mexico, he didn’t exactly endorse the Texas senator. When asked if his supporters should vote for Cruz in the Hoosier state, he replied: “No, they should vote for me”.

And while there was talk of a possible Cruz-Kasich ticket to try to unify the party, that idea was scrapped yesterday when Cruz announced that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate (should he somehow get the nomination). Indeed the announcement was as strange as it was desperate. Only once has a candidate announced a vice presidential candidate before clinching the party’s nomination (Ronald Reagan in 1976) and Fiorina does not provide much contrast to Cruz’s rigid identity. Generally, a running mate is supposed to counterbalance the candidate who chooses him or her, and shore up their potential weaknesses. Example: LBJ (a veteran from Texas with establishment support) to JFK (a young outsider from Massachusetts). Fiorina does neither for Cruz.

She has proven to be a tenacious surrogate for the Cruz campaign since her own presidential aspirations folded after Iowa, but she is an ideologue who appeals to evangelicals and very conservative voters – both groups Cruz already has in his tent. His problem is that he can’t win over moderates or even voters who identify as “somewhat conservative”. Fiorina does nothing to help Cruz expand into these two areas. Rather, she seems to be a big hunk of red meat that Cruz is dangling in front of the Donald in hopes that he’ll take the bait and fall into another trap. Trump’s big problem is that women don’t like him, even republican women, and Cruz is hoping that Trump will be Trump and say something outrageous about her.

Remember, Trump made a series of gaffes leading up to Wisconsin and, instead of making a concession speech after losing, accused Cruz of cheating and began ranting about how the election process is rigged. His numbers began to slide and party leaders who were just starting to come to terms with him being the nominee reversed course and began repeating the warning calls: “You see, we told you! He’s too unstable!” This is Cruz’s only hope at this point. To say the last two weeks have been rough would be putting it mildly. He expected the northeast to be unfriendly territory, but even the most conservative forecasts did not predict the absolute massacre that unfolded.

Cruz won a grand total of 2 delegates in the six states that voted on April 19 and 26, compared to 203 for Trump, and just 11 for John Kasich. Cruz was shut out in five of the six and even failed to get a delegate in Rhode Island’s third district because he couldn’t crack the ridiculously low threshold of 10 percent. Trump pushed his delegate lead to what seems all but insurmountable by sweeping Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, and taking nearly all of New York’s. Cruz’s response was almost as bad as his performance, as he held a rally in Indiana and made a painfully unfunny basketball reference to Trump’s delegate climb by referring to the hoop as a “ring”. That’s not how you win over Hoosiers.

In fact, the biggest surprise was Pennsylvania, a state that Cruz thought he could compete in. Polls predicted Trump would win but only with around 42-45% of the vote, instead he wound up with 57%. Consider this: Hillary won Pennsylvania by more than 12 points – that’s a “huge” win in a large, relatively diverse state. By county, she beat Sanders just 34-33. Donald Trump beat Cruz (and Kasich I guess) 67-0. He won every single county. He annihilated Ted Cruz, beating him in every category, even among voters who identify as “very conservative”. Is that a real sign that voters are consolidating around Trump, or due to the fact that he’s from the area? Indiana will give us the answer to that.

Another reason Cruz has to be discouraged: for perhaps the first time Trump’s campaign proved to have a ground game and outworked him for the actual delegates who were chosen in Pennsylvania, where 54 will go the convention unbound. In actuality, at least 39 of them are either Trump supporters or have pledged to support the candidate who won their district (Trump won all 15 congressional districts by wide margins). Only 6 are Cruz supporters and the other 9 have no preference.That means Trump has a bonus of roughly 40 delegates that could easily put him over the top if he doesn’t get to the magic number by the last primary day on June 7. And his path to 1, 237 which looked increasingly treacherous after Wisconsin, suddenly looks much straighter. Not easy by any stretch, but doable, particularly with Indiana in the bank.

With 30 delegates going to the statewide winner and 3 in each congressional district, whoever wins the Hoosier state figures to clear at least 42 and possibly upwards of all 57. That could likely be the difference between 1,237 outright for Trump and a messy convention vote which is the StopTrump’s only hope. So, Cruz is putting all of his chips (and essentially the NeverTrump movement’s as a whole) on Indiana. Polls show Trump with an 8 point lead, but those were taken before the Cruz-Kasich alliance and Fiorina announcements were made.

Indiana will be the first test for the newly formed StopTrump alliance, although not really considering that Rubio campaigned in Florida and told his supporters to vote for Kasich in Ohio, and Mitt Romney called for similar shenanigans in key states. Really, it’s a chance for Cruz who still has not proven that he’s anything more than a factional candidate, much like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum who campaigned as alternatives to the moderate John McCain and Mitt Romney. Like both of them, Cruz has won with hard right, evangelicals, but can’t expand his support anywhere else. Aside from Maine, which held a tiny caucus, he has not won east of Kansas. Trump has swept the east, save for Ohio, the south, and also won in Midwestern states (Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri) and in the southwest (Arizona and Nevada).

And that’s the main reason why the NeverTrump movement is failing despite all of the resources the establishment has expended trying to derail him. First, Trump’s appeal is broader than experts thought and have continued to try to portray. No, he doesn’t have a majority, but his support cuts across demographics and provides enough support that he can win in different areas. Also, voters do seem to be consolidating around him – like it or not. And second, there is no credible alternative to him. There just aren’t enough republicans who are willing to take Ted Cruz instead, no matter how unpalatable Trump may be to them.

Nor are they willing to get behind John Kasich who continues to stake his campaign on the fact that he polls the best against Hillary in the fall. Indeed, those numbers are real and he would give the republicans the best chance at winning in November, but his argument is kind of like a basketball coach arguing that his team should be in the NCAA tournament because they have the best shot to win in March despite the fact that their record is 1-31. Kasich simply can’t win anywhere outside of his home state, and in the northeast where he was supposed to contend with Trump he did manage several second place finishes, but lost by ridiculously horrific margins for somebody who is supposed to be a credible candidate for the party’s nomination.

Even if he loses Indiana (which is a possibility) he may still get to 1,237 or so close that it’ll be near impossible for the RNC to deny him the nomination without severe consequences. But if Trump does win there (and he was endorsed by Bobby Knight who’s probably more popular there than Carly Fiorina) it will be the end of the StopTrump or NeverTrump or AnybodyButTrump (or however you want to classify it) movement. Then the RNC will likely conduct a post-primary autopsy and begin asking itself: What more could we have done? Was the alliance too late? Where do we go from here?

Trump declared himself the “presumptive nominee” at his press conference Tuesday night, a feeling not shared by the establishment or the NeverTrump movement, but increasingly by everyone else. The media is already ratcheting up the Hillary vs. Trump main event, and no doubt salivating at the ratings bonanza that it will be. Although Trump has an argument that many are against him, the media is certainly not one of them.

Also, increasingly voters seem to be resigning themselves to the fact that Trump will ultimately be the nominee – like it or not – and that’s one of the two main narratives Trump is painting: he is going to be the nominee, so they might as well stop fighting it and just embrace him already. This is a smart strategy. The bandwagon effect is real – people want to pick a winner even if it means following the crowd, so falling in line and voting for Trump is essentially the only way to go the closer he gets. Conversely, those who oppose him increasingly grow apathetic to their chances of stopping him, just give up, and decide to stay home. Trump can win by attrition, just as he’s done this entire primary.

Trump is also playing the “fight the system” narrative beautifully, claiming that he would already have the nomination sewn up if it wasn’t for a rigged system that “Lyin” Ted Cruz (and now “1 for 47” Kasich) are using to try to stop not just him, but also the will of the people. And it’s working, an NBC News poll found: 66% of respondents said they agree that the U.S. primary system is corrupt and favors party insiders, and more than half would like to see the system changed.

So not only is Trump winning and inevitably going to be the nominee, but the system is rigged and working against him to boot. Combine those two and it’s an increasingly uphill battle for the NeverTrump movement to not only beat him outright, but even to keep the nomination from him should he fall just short of the magic number. Exit polls from Pennsylvania show that nearly two thirds of primary voters believe Trump should be the nominee if he has the most delegates and most votes, even if he’s short of the majority.

Donald Trump likes to draw comparisons between himself and Ronald Reagan, but in actuality he owes more of his skill to the Richard Nixon School of politics. Indeed, despite all of his flaws, Trump has shown rare and incredible foresight and ability to seize on festering distrust and anger in the population and manipulate it – just as Nixon did in 1968. Fans at his rallies proudly wave signs that say: “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump” a nod to the phrase that Nixon famously coined.

But there is perhaps no better quote to encapsulate this election than one also made by Nixon, who once said: “Show me an organized campaign to stop Candidate X, and I’ll show you how Candidate X can win”. Well, Trump is Candidate X, and the campaign to stop him is running out of time, and the public is turning increasingly against it – even if they’re not in love with Trump himself. In fact, its last stand likely lies in Indiana where Cruz will need a “Save the Alamo” type rally to keep his slim hopes of the nomination alive, and out of the grasp of Trump’s ever closing hand.

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