Donald Trump’s delegate lead in the Republican presidential primary is not particularly vast. It is definitely vast over also-rans Marco Rubio and John Kasich, regardless of whether they win their respective home states of Florida and Ohio on March 15. Ted Cruz, however, is only trailing Trump by about 100 delegates, a not insurmountable margin. Though twin Trump victories in Florida and Ohio—and the 165 winner-take-all delegates that would come with them—would be devastating to the anti-Trump cause, a split decision would still leave enough space for Cruz to catch up. What it’s going to take, though, is a leap-of-faith among anti-Trump leaders that comes with the risk of ceding Trump a 1,237 majority of delegates heading into the convention.
As I’ve written, the strategy of keeping all four Republican candidates in the race through the primary calendar could block Trump from hitting 1,237 prior to the convention, but it would also likely ensure Trump would enter Cleveland with a large delegate plurality. That sets up a scenario, to be broadcast on live television, in which party leaders attempt to give the nomination to a distant second-, third-, or fourth-place finisher (or some other White Knight). It would not be a pretty look, and delegates might not be comfortable going along with it.
With Rubio collapsing nationally—and with his disastrous results in Tuesday’s primaries—and Kasich improving his performance but too late in the game—and still with zero wins on the board—Republicans are going to have to choose between Cruz and Trump.
Cruz has been showing signs of late that he can win outside the South. He won Maine’s caucuses this past Saturday and posted a win in the Idaho caucuses Tuesday night. In Michigan, he finished in not-shabby second place. The really important number for Cruz, though, was buried deep within that state’s exit polling. In a hypothetical head-to-head Michigan contest between Trump and Cruz, Cruz bested Trump by a narrow 43–41 percent. (Rubio, meanwhile, trailed Trump 41–46 under such a scenario.) If Cruz could consistently beat Trump in the remaining contests, with anti-Trump votes finally unified around a single, albeit imperfect far-right candidate, he would be able to close the gap with Trump.
Anti-Trumpers appear to be mostly out of luck in Florida. Rubio is collapsing, and Cruz is catching up with him. So many voters have already likely cast their ballots in early voting for Rubio, though, that it might not help Cruz enough for Rubio to drop out before next Tuesday’s contest. Conservatives are left to conjure up fantastical scenarios in which Cruz should endorse Rubio in Florida as part of some longer-term deal. Whatever. What we’re staring at is a split Cruz–Rubio vote that awards Trump 99 delegates and ends Rubio’s campaign. Cruz, meanwhile, should pray that Kasich wins Ohio, recognizes that he’s performed his “favorite son” duty of denying Trump 66 delegates, and drops outs. This could be wishful thinking, but if enough party poobahs put enough pressure on enough leading figures to rally around Cruz, it could work. If he has the party’s best interests at heart, this is what Jeb Bush will push for when he meets with the remaining non-Trump candidates this week.
If all of this were to go right for Cruz, he would need to start winning across the map. There aren’t many pure winner-take-all contests this cycle, but there are some: Arizona (58 delegates), Nebraska (36), Montana (27), Delaware (16), and South Dakota (26). Cruz would need to win most if not all of those. He would need to take delegate majorities in proportional or hybrid winner-take-most races in states like North Carolina (72), Missouri (52), Oregon (28), Washington (44), Maryland (38), Utah (40), Indiana (57), and, of course, California (172). And Cruz would need to mitigate his losses in the Trumpy Northeastern states of New York (95) and Connecticut (28). New Jersey (51), unfortunately for Cruz, is a pure winner-take-all state.
It’s hard to get much more granular than this since there’s such little polling data available for the states that vote after March 15. Even if there was significant polling in the out-states, it wouldn’t measure the race as a one-on-one contest between Trump and Cruz.
That’s where the leap of faith comes in. If anti-Trumpers really believe that they constitute a majority of the party, and that Trump does have a ceiling, they should put it to the test. If Cruz can earn consistent majorities over Trump after March 15, there are enough winner-take-all and winner-take-most states out there for him to either overtake Trump with the delegate plurality—or come close enough that jumping past Trump at the convention wouldn’t be so conspiratorial. The risk here—and it is a significant risk—is that Trump is the one who earns consistent majorities against Cruz in the remaining states, and the removal of the split vote factor allows him to round up 1,237 delegates by the convention. All that would show, fairly enough, is that Trump has control of the majority of the party and deserves to be the nominee. Why not let the voters decide that one way or another?