For a presidential candidate who has only won a single primary so far and has the fewest delegates of any of the three surviving candidates in the Republican presidential nomination contest, John Kasich has certainly been receiving his share of the attention. The Republican Party establishment, or at least elements of the establishment, has imprinted him as the “last, best hope” for mainstream Republicans to stop the Donald Trump train. But in light of Trump’s crushing victory in New York last night, winning more than 60% of the vote, the prospects of a contested convention in which Kasich might emerge as the nominee has grown notably more dim.
Ted Cruz’s disastrous performance (he won just 14.5% of the vote) does little to help the cause of those Republicans who see in Cruz an instrument of Trump’s downfall. And, while Kasich got 25% of the vote, this is hardly solace to those who have been vying for Kasich to emerge as the savior of the Republican Party.
Indeed, in virtually any other presidential election cycle, a candidate who had piled up the kind of victories Trump has managed to achieve would be considered the presumptive nominee, and any remaining opposition would be under extraordinary pressure from the party establishment to throw in the towel and support the frontrunner. Of course, the phrase “normal political year” doesn’t quite describe 2016, and Trump is hardly the garden-variety frontrunner. There was a brief flurry of speculation about House Speaker Paul Ryan, who seemed to be on the verge of jumping into the race before he pulled the plug on a late entry into the nomination sweepstakes. But even Republicans still unable to even contemplate the prospect of a Trump nomination have surely come to the conclusion that trying to manipulate the process in a way that hands someone the nomination who hasn’t even competed in the primaries would be a complete nonstarter, and even if such an effort got off the ground, would run the very real risk of blowing up the party.
For Cruz, the interest in Kasich is probably a sure sign that the Republican establishment will do everything within its power to prevent him, a candidate held in perhaps only marginally more regard than Trump (due to his perceived grandstanding in the Senate and refusal to “play ball” with the GOP leadership), from getting the nomination. Were Cruz to prove the eventual agent of Trump’s downfall, that would likely not endear him to most establishmentarians, for whom, as has been frequently noted, his usefulness to the “Stop Trump” movement would come to an abrupt end. Cruz has been a placeholder, serving a useful purpose, but with no thaw in the party establishment’s view of him.
Even if he did win New York, the Kasich option seems farfetched. Where would he get 1,237 delegates, the minimum necessary, to win? Would a sufficient number of Trump or Cruz delegates peel off on a second, third, or even fourth ballot to give Kasich the nod? What seems far more likely is that at some point, if it seems clear that the establishment types have a realistic chance of pulling off a coup and installing Kasich as the nominee, delegates representing the Trump and Cruz factions would seek to take matters into their own hands, and, in some kind of “grand bargain,” agree, holding their collective noses as they did so, to support one or the other of the candidates in return for significant concessions, either in terms of the vice presidency (if not Cruz himself than someone else acceptable to Cruz delegates), or in return for a significant voice in shaping the party platform and rules.
After all, Cruz is a young man—only 45 years old—and he may well be beginning to think about his options in a world in which he is not the 2016 nominee. To do something that risks crippling the Republican Party for years to come would surely not be in his interests. Even the vice presidency is not completely out of the question as part of a grand bargain. While it is obvious there is no love lost between Trump and Cruz (an understatement if ever there was one), Cruz in the second position on the ticket is not completely implausible. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows, as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson would attest in the Democratic nomination battle of 1960. LBJ was loathed by the Kennedys and their supporters, who saw LBJ as a lightweight, cornpone Texas hack (completely dismissing LBJ’s incredible legislative skills), and who wanted a liberal like Hubert Humphrey or Stuart Symington as his running mate. While Johnson’s selection made complete sense from the standpoint of the general election, a Trump-Cruz ticket would likely not offer the kind of boost that Trump might be looking for.
Of course, all of the above may very well be a theoretical exercise. Over the past week or so, Trump has appeared to strike a responsive chord with his recent comments, including an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, that the nominating system is rigged against him. But what may especially resonate was his ability to link what he perceives as the unfairness of the nominating system with the general sense felt by many Americans that the Washington establishment is rigged against them. Whatever Trump’s limitations and weaknesses as a candidate, he and his campaign seem to have an uncanny ability to identify messages that resonate with voters, and the “rigged” nomination process message might be the one that puts him over the top in Cleveland with a first ballot victory.
The next few weeks will not be kind to either Cruz or Kasich. Trump is almost certain to sweep the primaries in the northeast and Middle Atlantic states on Tuesday, including the big prize of Pennsylvania (Cruz may be able to win Indiana and West Virginia a few weeks later), and is now positioned to have enough delegates following California on June 7 that he will be within striking distance of the nomination. At that point, the dreams of the “NeverTrump” movement will turn into a nightmare. Either Trump will then use the period between June 7 and the start of the Republican Convention on July 18 to pick off the handful of remaining delegates needed, or, in a reprise of Gerald Ford’s successful nomination in 1976, obtain the remaining delegates during the convention itself. The Trump card, of course, is the vice presidential spot on the ticket. Given Trump’s problems with female voters (including governors Susanna Martinez of New Mexico and Nikki Haley of South Carolina), the obvious pick is none other than Kasich, governor of a critical battleground state and a candidate with extensive Washington experience, which Trump has claimed to seek. And, it is worth pointing out that Trump and Kasich have made nice with each other from the beginning. This may be no accident, as the Marxists say. So, Kasich may well have his day in the sun, just not quite in the role envisioned by the beleaguered party bigwigs.
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of the soon-to-be published books,Paths not Taken: The What Ifs of American History from theWar for Independence to the Bush-Gore Election andAdventures of Maia Neeri of the 24th Century.