Is Ted Cruz fooling himself? Donald Trump has more than half the delegates he needs to secure the nomination (680 out of 1,237), and the electoral terrain is shifting to states like New York and New Jersey, where Trump is expected to outperform him. Cruz’s strategic plan for securing the nomination, relying heavily on an evangelical vote that split, hasn’t worked.
This outcome had been presaged in South Carolina Feb. 20, where evangelicals chose Trump, even though exit polls indicated few believed he shared their values. Trump tells it like it is, and that was apparently more important. A recent New York poll shows Trump at 64 and Cruz at 12, a 52-point gap. Is it time for Cruz to bow to the inevitable?
A Trump first-ballot victory is by no means a sure thing, which explains why Trump has already called the rule requiring a majority of the Republican delegates to secure the nomination “unfair.” The chances that Cruz will overtake Trump, much less secure a first-ballot majority, are admittedly remote. Nevertheless, he is the candidate best positioned to block Trump.
On Tuesday, the Arizona and Utah primaries will provide important clues regarding the prospects of the movement to stop Trump. Trump is heavily favored to win Arizona’s 58 winner-take-all delegates, but Cruz is poised to win in Utah. Mitt Romney is supporting Cruz in this state, which has many Mormon voters following Romney’s avowed strategy of supporting the candidate best-positioned to stop Trump in any particular state (supporting Kasich in Ohio but Cruz in Utah). To truly dampen Trump’s momentum, Cruz has to win more than 50% of the vote in Utah, a result that would award all of Utah’s 40 delegates to Cruz.
Currently, Cruz has 424 pledged delegates, trailing Trump by more than 250. Indicative of the fact that Trump hasn’t closed the deal, however, is the combined tally of Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio: Collectively, they have 733 delegates to Trump’s 680 (Rubio is keeping his delegates despite suspending his campaign). Many traditional Republicans have not rallied to the Trump cause despite his electoral successes, and Cruz can marshal these voters in the remaining primaries.
Even though the states that have not yet voted have fewer evangelical voters, 16 of the 22 remaining primaries and caucuses are closed, only permitting registered Republicans to vote on the Republican ballot. Thus far, Trump has done better in states with open primaries that allow independents (and in some cases, Democrats) to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. Trump has won only five of the 11 closed primaries and caucuses that have been held. Moreover, delegate-rich primaries—like those in California and New York—allocate delegates by Congressional district rather than winner-take-all at the state level.
Cruz should be able to win delegates in the more conservative parts of upstate New York, despite the large lead Trump holds in statewide polls. In the coming winner-take-all states, Trump will undoubtedly prevail in New Jersey with its 51 delegates, but Cruz is favored in Montana and South Dakota with a total of 56 delegates. Finally, Pennsylvania and Colorado send large numbers of uncommitted delegates to the Cleveland convention, delegates who may be persuaded to vote against Trump if they are convinced that a Trump candidacy would lead to an electoral route in the general election.
After Tuesday, the battleground will shift to Wisconsin on April 5, where Trump will have another opportunity to demonstrate his Rust Belt appeal.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.