Conservatives should not be denied the satisfaction they must feel as it becomes clear they are the Republican Party’s last hope. The GOP is staring into the abyss of fragmentation and virtual dissolution should Donald Trump become the party’s presidential nominee. Until last night, there were few signs that the celebrity candidate’s momentum could be halted. On Saturday night, it was conservative voters who broke strongly against Trump and yielded Senator Ted Cruz two dramatic victories.
There is a certain irony in Republican elites looking toward modestly attended, conservative-dominated caucus states to put the brakes on Trump’s runaway train. In recent cycles, populous, coastal states with open primaries that include moderates and independents have become the first line of defense for the GOP against the passions of the party’s more ideologically rigid conservative members. Today, it is the nation’s independents and self-styled moderates who have fallen under the sway of an aspiring authoritarian, and it is the conservative wing of the GOP that is leading the charge against him.
The effort to stop Trump was wildly successful in the caucus states of Maine and Kansas, where Cruz pulled off two impressive victories, winning 46 and 48 percent of the vote respectively. Cruz voters were unable to stop Trump on Election Day in Kentucky and Louisiana due almost entirely to the number of absentee and early votes the reality star secured over the last few weeks. In Louisiana in particular, the rate at which non-Trump voters abandoned candidates like John Kasich and Marco Rubio to consolidate around Cruz in the hours leading up to the vote was remarkable. In the Pelican State, Cruz wildly outperformed expectations and came within fewer than 4 points of Trump.
Conservatives should find this all rather heartening. Donald Trump can be stopped. But the risk of cockiness among anti-Trump GOP voters has led to some erroneous presumptions; foremost among them being that Ted Cruz or any other anti-Trump candidate can win the delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright. That, for the most part, is still a fantasy.
For supporters of Ted Cruz, the worst thing that could happen would be for Marco Rubio’s support in Florida to collapse. Rubio’s performance on Saturday night was below par, leading some to wonder if voters who opposed Trump had determined in the last moments to strategically unite behind the candidate with the best shot to defeat the real estate heir. But Cruz backers who contend that Rubio is now an obstacle on their man’s path to the nomination don’t have the math with them.
Cruz received a substantial amount of earned media coverage from his campaign’s decision to open up ten offices in Rubio’s home state – a must-win for the junior Sunshine State senator – but he hasn’t followed up that dramatic announcement with many investments in campaign infrastructure or advertisements. The play may be a feint. Cruz is surely hoping to emerge the last non-Trump candidate in the race, and he has a good shot at winning that title. But Florida, like Ohio, is a winner-take-all state. Ted Cruz won’t win a single delegate there and, if Rubio falls short, all 99 of its delegates will go to Trump. That would end Marco Rubio’s campaign (despite his likely strong showing in Puerto Rico tonight), but it would do Cruz no favors. If he hopes to win the nomination at a contested convention, Cruz is far better served by being able to keep Trump’s delegate total as far below a majority as possible. And that presumes that Trump doesn’t win the nomination outright, which he can still do even without Florida’s delegates.
And while Cruz backers can rightfully tout the Texas senator’s showing in Maine’s caucuses as proof that their man can play outside of a defined geographic region, they’d be better served by not shouting that too loudly. Ted Cruz’s campaign has had no events scheduled after last night, and for good reason: they’ve entered into a phase of their campaign that may be characterized by a delegate drought.
“It would be easier if Mr. Rubio, not Mr. Cruz, were the main rival to Mr. Trump,” New York Times reporter Nate Cohn observed. “The model shows Mr. Rubio is on track to surpass Mr. Cruz in delegates by the end of the primary season, despite his struggles so far.”
“Mr. Cruz has nearly no chance to win the delegate-rich blue states later in the calendar,” the dispatch continued. “He’s not even on track to exceed 15 percent of the vote in several states where Mr. Trump would need to be slowed, while Mr. Rubio is in striking distance.”
Upcoming winner-take-all or winner-take-most primary races — not caucuses — in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida are not expected to favor Cruz. In April, large purple or blue states like New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania will hold primaries. Those are states where Trump can rack up a powerful delegate lead, but only if he can maintain the support of both his core supporters and weakly aligned moderate Republicans. Conservatives should not forget that the GOP nominating contest was designed specially to prevent a conservative insurgent candidate from gaining too much traction, and Ted Cruz is now that insurgent candidate.
Because there were no exit polls last night, theories to explain Trump’s swoon and Cruz’s surge will proliferate. Each of them will enjoy a modicum of legitimacy if only by virtue of the fact that they cannot be falsified. Did Ted Cruz’s debate performance on Thursday hasten the flight of anti-Trump voters to his ranks? Did Mitt Romney’s appeal to Republicans to vote strategically and for their state’s most potent Trump challenger win converts? Did Cruz simply close the deal with a plurality of primary voters and caucus-goers in the closing hours of the race? We’ll never know for sure.
The very worst reaction that Cruz backers could have to last night’s showing is to attempt to force Cruz’s competition out of the race prematurely in the mistaken notion that their candidate would obviously win a two-way race. That’s a false assumption – the states that would have made that equation work for Cruz have already voted. Anti-Trump voters need every anti-Trump candidate to retain the appearance of viability and strength if they are going to take the fight against the celebrity candidate to Cleveland.
There is opportunity in chaos and adversity and, for conservatives, their moment of opportunity is, as Trump might say, “yuge.” After being denigrated and dismissed for so long as recalcitrant ideologues whose rigidity does the GOP more harm than good, conservatives are demonstrating that it is they, not the party’s coreless moderates and erstwhile Democrats, who have the GOP’s best interests at heart. If conservatives save the Republican Party from this moment, they will rightly inherit it. But saving the party from Trump is no small charge. If in their eagerness to rush the strategy to blunt Trump’s successes, they prematurely seek a two-man race and knock a clearly weakened John Kasich and Marco Rubio out, they will likely have squandered that opportunity.