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The Odds of a Contested Convention Have Never Been Higher

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Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz gets ready to speak at a rally in Louisiana. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz gets ready to speak at a rally in Louisiana. Max Becherer/AP

Don­ald Trump’s not-so-ma­gic num­ber in the Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies is 34 per­cent. That’s the av­er­age share of the vote Trump has re­ceived in the first 19 con­tests. He won one-third of the vote in the four early races, 34 per­cent on Su­per Tues­day, and a dis­ap­point­ing 33 per­cent av­er­age in the smal­ler-state races held this week­end. At a time when can­did­ates usu­ally in­crease their sup­port, Trump’s is stun­ted.

This has been the story of the Re­pub­lic­an race: Trump, with the help of end­less news-me­dia cov­er­age, was able to con­sol­id­ate and lock down his blue-col­lar base quick­er than his rivals, who spent months fight­ing among them­selves. Only now are Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates and out­side groups train­ing their fire at Trump, and it’s clearly pay­ing off.

The biggest be­ne­fi­ciary of the Trump ceil­ing is Ted Cruz, who is the second choice of many Trump sup­port­ers and has been pick­ing up mo­mentum since his bet­ter-than-ex­pec­ted Su­per Tues­day. He won the most del­eg­ates over the week­end, crush­ing the com­pet­i­tion in Kan­sas and Maine, nearly trip­ping up Trump in Louisi­ana and hold­ing him to 36 per­cent in Ken­tucky. Cruz is now with­in strik­ing dis­tance of Trump in the del­eg­ate count, much closer to the top than Marco Ru­bio is to second place.

Ru­bio, mean­while, per­formed poorly and didn’t even hit the 10 per­cent del­eg­ate threshold in Maine. Three factors con­trib­uted to his col­lapse: a) his lackluster de­bate per­form­ance in De­troit, where he ef­fect­ively laid out Trump’s bag­gage but didn’t make an ef­fect­ive case for him­self; b) Mitt Rom­ney’s speech in which he urged con­ser­vat­ive voters to back any of Trump’s rivals and swung some late votes from Ru­bio to Cruz—at least in Louisi­ana, where Ru­bio did much bet­ter in early vot­ing than on Elec­tion Day; c) con­ser­vat­ive talk-ra­dio hosts Sean Han­nity, Mark Lev­in, and (to a less­er ex­tent) Rush Limbaugh rough­ing up Ru­bio as he be­came the de facto es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate.

The third factor may be the most con­sequen­tial, with Han­nity slam­ming Ru­bio as a trait­or on his pop­u­lar TV show and syn­dic­ated ra­dio show—a turn­around promp­ted by a New York Times story sug­gest­ing that Fox hosts changed their views on im­mig­ra­tion re­form after be­ing privately lob­bied by Ru­bio as he pushed the Gang of Eight bill. At the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Sat­urday, Han­nity didn’t in­ter­view Ru­bio, as he did the oth­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. In­stead, that hon­or went to CNN re­port­er Dana Bash, a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the main­stream me­dia that grass­roots con­ser­vat­ives des­pise.

But des­pite Cruz’s as­cend­ancy and Ru­bio’s col­lapse, the like­li­hood of a con­tested con­ven­tion has nev­er been high­er. Ru­bio is pour­ing all his re­sources and en­ergy in­to his home state of Flor­ida and its 99 win­ner-take-all del­eg­ates, a last-ditch ef­fort to get his cam­paign back on track. He is be­ing aided by the anti-Trump group Our Prin­ciples PAC, which is sat­ur­at­ing Flor­ida’s ex­pens­ive TV mar­kets with scath­ing Trump oppo. A poll con­duc­ted by the group shows Ru­bio with­in five points of Trump, hold­ing him to 35 per­cent. Mean­while, Cruz’s strongest states (those with high evan­gel­ic­al pop­u­la­tions and those hold­ing caucuses) are be­hind him, and he has struggled north of the Ma­son-Dix­on Line, where most of the re­main­ing primar­ies are.

Cruz’s cam­paign is plan­ning to make a late play for Flor­ida to knock Ru­bio out of the race and cre­ate a one-on-one- show­down with Trump. But if Trump loses Flor­ida, it’s hard to see how any­one gets a ma­jor­ity of del­eg­ates after this week­end’s res­ults. Still, Cruz is in very good po­s­i­tion now. If there’s a con­tested con­ven­tion, Cruz may be the most un­usu­al of con­sensus can­did­ates—one who is loathed by the es­tab­lish­ment but viewed as the only Re­pub­lic­an who can keep the party from split­ting apart.

TRAIL MIX:

1. Even with anti-Trump Re­pub­lic­ans resigned to push­ing for a con­tested con­ven­tion, the lead­ing su­per PAC at­tack­ing Trump is fo­cus­ing its ef­forts on Flor­ida and Illinois but isn’t cur­rently plan­ning to spend money in John Kasich’s home state of Ohio. Thanks to big money from GOP su­per-donor Paul Sing­er, the Our Prin­ciples PAC is now well-fun­ded enough that it can com­pete out­side of Ru­bio’s must-win Flor­ida base, but has de­cided to ex­pand the map by air­ing at­tack ads in the ex­pens­ive Chica­go sub­urbs in­stead of try­ing to shore up Kasich’s stand­ing in an­oth­er must-win state.

“We have to be stra­tegic, and can’t be every­where,” the group’s strategist, Katie Pack­er Gage, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Oth­er groups are there. There will be ample mes­sages hit­ting Trump in Ohio.”

So while Mitt Rom­ney urged anti-Trump Re­pub­lic­ans to vote stra­tegic­ally—Kasich in Ohio, Ru­bio in Flor­ida, Cruz in more-con­ser­vat­ive states—the sen­ti­ment with­in Our Prin­ciples PAC is largely pro-Ru­bio. On Fri­day, Gage tweeted that the only people who thought John Kasich did well in the de­bate were Demo­crats—a point that un­der­mines the Ohio gov­ernor in his home state. Also mak­ing things more dif­fi­cult: Polls cur­rently show Kasich with bet­ter odds of hold­ing off Trump in Ohio than Ru­bio pre­vail­ing in Flor­ida.

By open­ing up a third front in del­eg­ate-rich Illinois, the anti-Trump forces are mak­ing a risky bet. On pa­per, Ru­bio is an ap­peal­ing can­did­ate to the deep swath of cen­ter-right Re­pub­lic­an voters in the Chica­go sub­urbs. With enough re­sources be­hind him, the Flor­ida sen­at­or could re­bound with wins in Flor­ida and Illinois, which would all but block Trump’s path to a ma­jor­ity. But if Ru­bio con­tin­ues to un­der­achieve and Kasich comes just short in Ohio, those re­sources may have bet­ter been spent lock­ing down del­eg­ates in Ohio in­stead of open­ing new of­fens­ives.

2. If no GOP can­did­ate gets the 1,237 del­eg­ates to clinch the nom­in­a­tion, Kasich’s play for the nom­in­a­tion isn’t all that far-fetched. Con­sider: He’s the only Re­pub­lic­an left who hasn’t slammed Trump, his sup­port­ers over­lap with Trump’s blue-col­lar base, he’s the most-elect­able Re­pub­lic­an against Hil­lary Clin­ton, and he has a home-court ad­vant­age with the con­ven­tion in Clev­e­land. In ad­di­tion, his re­sume as big-state gov­ernor and con­gres­sion­al lead­er may not be a polit­ic­al as­set, but should lend him cred­ib­il­ity among the del­eg­ates in a pos­sible floor fight.

He’d prob­ably need to ex­per­i­ence some luck: win­ning Ohio, and hop­ing Trump flat­lines and Ru­bio doesn’t win Flor­ida. Un­der that scen­ario, he could rack up del­eg­ates at the back end of the pro­cess and emerge with late mo­mentum. Con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans would cry foul if Kasich emerged as a com­prom­ise pick, but a Kasich-Cruz tick­et could sat­is­fy both wings of the party.

3. Food for thought: What if George Wal­lace had won the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in 1972 with the Wa­ter­gate scan­dal hit­ting its peak dur­ing the elec­tion? That’s usu­ally a scen­ario of in­terest only to polit­ic­al day­dream­ers, but it isn’t too far from what’s hap­pen­ing now—a tox­ic Trump en­ga­ging in a hos­tile takeover of the party, with leg­al wor­ries for Hil­lary Clin­ton worsen­ing. (Bry­an Pagliano, who set up Clin­ton’s email serv­er and was gran­ted im­munity from the feds, is do­ing a pass­able im­it­a­tion of Al­ex­an­der But­ter­field.)

Josh Kraushaar

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly "Against the Grain" column.

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