It was as if some blindfolded ISIS thugs were towering over a crouched Mike Pence. That’s when the Indiana governor on Friday praised Donald Trump as part of his peculiar and tortured endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz. Then in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, Pence recovered with a bit of enthusiasm for Cruz. The reality is, given the conservative record of Sen. Cruz, Pence should have endorsed him earlier, and robustly.
Whatever the outcome today in Indiana, Pence was hedging his bets, if not telegraphing a Trump win. That’s right in line with Trump’s strategy of “inevitability.” The synergy is apparent — as certain Republican pols sense the energy, they endorse Trump; their endorsements, in turn, convey momentum that leads to more favorable news coverage.
That’s why Trump consigliore Paul Manafort has adopted a high profile. He wanted to establish his status as Trump’s top guy, to legitimize his outreach to Capitol Hill and to convention delegates. And he kept insisting Trump would be the presumptive nominee not simply before the California June 7th primary, but even before today’s primary in Indiana. Manafort wanted his prediction to demoralize the Cruz supporters; that is, the Trump campaign hoped for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ted Cruz yesterday showed class and agility in taking on hecklers who were boorish. Cruz won the debate, but it’s unclear if the exchange changed the mind of any viewers. It didn’t help that Cruz said voters supporting Trump were “chumps.
Cruz does his best in spontaneous encounters where he demonstrates his intellect, his command of the facts, and his logic and argumentation. And, at least in part, he gets off his soapbox. And Cruz does especially well with his wife, and with his daughters. Yet, his campaign instead has continued to put him in formal speech mode, where he is stiff and with numerous liabilities, including his stock speech which: (1) is suitable for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), not for a campaign; and (2) has not changed significantly or evolved, and (3) is punctuated by the Cruz trademark of constant and exaggerated hand gestures that now distract from whatever message he has.
There is no way for Cruz to compete with Trump on attendance at campaign rallies. Trump commands huge crowds, and he puts on a show. Cruz cannot draw those numbers — all those bodies — and, as brilliant as he is, Cruz remains pedantic. The Cruz campaign should have replaced traditional campaign rallies with something else. For example, a Cruz dialogue with articulate former Trump supporters.
Cruz is a very intelligent man. If he had been exposed early to watching a few focus groups where conservative Republicans who agree with him explained what they did not like about him, he might have — with some empathetic and informed counsel — changed for the better, while still retaining his authenticity.
But that was then, this is now.
If Cruz somehow wins Indiana, he cannot be written off. But if Cruz loses Indiana, it’s virtually certain that Trump easily wins on the first ballot. That’s because California — although it allows only Republicans to vote in its presidency primary, and no independent voters who might be more open to Trump, California still will not be the Cruz firewall… not if Indiana is lost. Even with a superior “ground game” — consider this: micro-targeting, voting by mail, and election day turnout cannot overcome the macro, that is, the political environment repeatedly defined by Trump, and we’re talking “inevitability.”
If Trump wins Indiana, the consequent momentum will impact not only upcoming primaries, but also the absentee (that is, vote-by-mail) voting in California. Each congressional district, no matter how few or how many Republicans are registered there to vote, counts for three delegates. Thus, an overwhelmingly Democrat district, for example, in a district largely populated by African-American or Latino voters, will have a small number of Republicans who could be reached — in person, by telephone, by mail. The Cruz campaign could get a few Congressional districts on the cheap. But the Trump tidal wave could be so big that it would carry the bulk of the state’s congressional districts.
How ironic that Donald Trump, long part of The Establishment, has usurped the insurgency. And Ted Cruz, the quintessential Anti-Establishment insurgent, celebrated the endorsement of Jeb Bush and other symbols of the status quo. Cruz erred in branding himself the Anti-Trump, when he was a champion in his own right. And he allowed Trump to impeach him as “Lyin’ Ted.” And the Ted Cruz-John Kasich alliance appeared cynical.
The argument that Cruz will defeat Hillary, and Trump will not, is implausible. Polls this far in advance of a general election may not be that instructive. Besides, most polls have been showing both Cruz and Trump losing to Hillary Clinton. If viability against Hillary is the criterion, then John Kasich should be the nominee. Even those numbers are questionable: Kasich’s favorable-to-unfavorable ratio partly reflects that he has scarcely been attacked, except perhaps for how eats.
In recent weeks and days, Cruz has thrown everything but the kitchen sink against Trump. As a result, nothing stands out. The media cannot define a daily news lead for Cruz, much less a powerful attack that would control the news cycle. In the traditional campaign war room, the campaign’s strategists and tacticians converge: what will be our defining message tomorrow? They do not let the media pick and choose the news lead.
Trump also is redundant, but it doesn’t matter. He follows the road less traveled on, and the rules don’t seem to apply. Cruz of all people long ago should have preempted the Trump populist message. Instead, last year he repeatedly praised Trump and helped legitimize him, then he pivoted far too late.
The Trump campaign can be sloppy, as seen in touting the endorsement of Mike Tyson. And now the Trump team has walked back Tyson, once imprisoned for rape. But Trump continues to score non-politician endorsements that matter. I once used the legendary basketball coach John Wooden in an Indiana campaign because basketball is supreme in that state. That’s why coach Bobby Knight’s endorsement of Trump is important.
The Republican primary, as a whole, is fought on three levels. First, there are the primary elections for each state. Trump has scored an “A.” His “ceiling” was raised to successively higher pluralities, and now growing majorities.
Second, there are the campaigns to place or elect specific delegates. While they would be obliged to vote for Trump if he carried their state or district, that’s only on the first ballot; after that, they can vote for Cruz or someone else. In fact, even on the first ballot, they could vote against Trump on rules changes and procedural matters. Cruz has scored an “A.”
Third, there is the narrative. Trump says the system is “rigged.” Cruz says the rules for specific states have been known, and the requirement for a delegate majority is the way nominations are determined. Still, Republican voters say the candidate with the most delegates should be nominated. If Trump wins on the first ballot, he has overcome The Establishment and the rigged system and “the bosses.” If he encounters problems, it’s the lobbyists and insiders who want to stop him. Trump wins on the narrative.
As far as the story line, Cruz never developed plausible examples of real Trump voters who had buyer’s remorse and defected to Cruz. These people could have come forward or been featured in commercials. In fact, the bulk of the Stop Trump movement has played into the Trump line, that The Establishment will go to any length to deprive him of the nomination. Generally, last year and this year, the Stop Trump coalition has criticized and ridiculed Trump’s supporters rather than wooed them.
It has been clear for a while that the only way to defeat Trump was for a contested convention. The anti-Trump forces could have branded such a scenario as an exciting and meaningful celebration of democracy — a reality television show of an open convention. Instead, they played into Trump’s hands by talking about how to “stop Trump” with a “brokered convention.”
If Trump wins today, the Indiana results are dispositive. That is, unless there is a momentous and unforeseen development. Trump has said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I would not lose voters.” That hypothesis remains to be tested.
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