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.
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.)