With its long history of sordid political dysfunction and the frequent Buckner-at-Shea miscues of its voters on Election Day, few should be comfortable with the idea of Louisiana as a bellwether state.
But in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, that seems to be where we are, and so the budding head-to-head between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as Marco Rubio’s campaign reaches its last ditch in Florida, will likely play itself out in the Louisiana primary on Saturday.
Only 47 delegates will be dispensed in that primary; it’s not Texas, with its grand haul of 155 that Cruz pocketed a large majority of Tuesday. But Louisiana is the largest prize of the four contests on tap Saturday, and it’s the only primary. Kansas, Maine, and Kentucky are caucuses taking place that day.
And the Bayou State is a bellwether of sorts because its primary is closed (as are the caucuses in Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine). Of the five “closed” affairs to date, Trump has lost four. The one he did win was the Nevada caucus, and it’s not quite accurate to call it a closed event — you had to be a registered Republican to take part in the Nevada caucus, but you could become one on the day of the caucus. Iowa was the same way.
Cruz won Iowa, and he also won Oklahoma’s closed primary, and he won the closed Alaska caucus. Rubio won the closed Minnesota caucus; Trump finished third. One wonders if Minnesotans’ embarrassing experience with Jesse Ventura as their governor was a cause of their lack of zest for Trump.
Louisiana is therefore a test of the theory that Trump is winning primaries because they’re open to Democrats and Independents invading polling booths in order to “spam” Republican primaries. And in the case of those Democrats, they’re not coming as fresh converts to conservatism; some portion of them, the theory goes, are attempting to sabotage the GOP’s nomination process.
If the theory is true, a closed primary in a supposedly deeply conservative state like Louisiana ought to be tailor-made for Cruz and he should deal Trump a setback in the Sportsman’s Paradise.
And Tuesday night, Louisiana held a caucus to choose delegates to be presented at the state Republican convention on March 11. There were some 3,354 votes made for that process, and Cruz won big — his delegates carried some 45 percent of the balloting to Trump’s 30 percent and Rubio’s 17. That’s a testament to something Cruz has boasted of since the primary process began; an excellent ground game and a strong network of grassroots activists. The Cruz narrative, built upon the results of the caucus, looked like a strong one.
But on Wednesday came the release of a poll conducted by Magellan Strategies in partnership with The Hayride, Louisiana’s most prominent conservative website (and yes, I’m its publisher, so feel free to gripe about this shameless plug in the comments). The Magellan poll of 609 registered Republicans directly contradicts the results of the caucus, as it has Trump with a monstrous 41-21 lead over Cruz, with Rubio trailing at 15. Trump won that poll in every one of the state’s media markets: he won men, he won women, and he won every age group save for the 18-34 cohort. The poll was a wipeout for the New York real estate tycoon.
Rubio might underperform both of the week’s indicators; he cancelled a rally in downtown Baton Rouge that was planned for Friday evening and has de-facto given up in Louisiana. Candidates who cannot show 20 percent in the Louisiana primary will receive no delegates, so Rubio saw the writing on the wall.
Saturday’s Louisiana result can be expected to lie somewhere on the wide spectrum between the caucus and the Magellan poll. For Cruz, and for the anti-Trump crowd as a whole, he’s going to need a strong finish in the state, and his grassroots activists are reaching out to supporters of Rubio, as well as John Kasich (9 percent in the Magellan poll) and Ben Carson (5 percent) in a plea for a strategic Saturday vote. As none of the three look to reach the 20 percent threshold, a vote for those candidates is effectively a vote for Trump.
That’s a message Cruz will undoubtedly carry to a large outdoor rally he has planned Friday evening in Mandeville, a tony bedroom community across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. Trump will also be in Louisiana on Friday, with an event of his own inside the city limits of the Big Easy.
Should Cruz carry Louisiana, as well as win or at least come close in Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine, the closed-primary theory could well be a roadmap to victory for him — assuming, that is, that Rubio’s star is on the wane and he’s not able to pull out a home-state victory in Florida to keep his campaign alive. What’s coming is a string, though not unbroken, of closed primary contests which, Louisiana might prove, could fuel a Cruz comeback.
But if Trump is able to confirm the Magellan poll’s veracity on Saturday, the theory might prove to be just a theory — and Cruz is going to need help, which might not be forthcoming, from the other three candidates if he’s going to get a head-to-head contest against Trump his camp believes he can win.