Super Tuesday changed everything in the race for the Republican nomination. The problem is that Donald Trump’s rivals have not yet adapted to the new terrain. Trump’s impressive achievements from Alabama in the South to Massachusetts in New England have established him as the only candidate with realistic hopes of arriving at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland with the 1,237 delegates needed to guarantee a first-ballot victory. Although Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are each calling for the other two to get out of the race so they can emerge as the alternative to Trump, none of the three has a realistic chance of beating Trump in a head-to-head contest in the remaining primaries as a whole.
While Cruz has the second-highest delegate count at this point, his failure to beat Trump in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (the Evangelical heartland) bodes ill for further success. Rubio’s weak Super Tuesday performance — winning only Minnesota — indicates that his appeal is more limited than mainstream Republican leaders (and donors) had hoped. Kasich is staking everything on a victory in Ohio, but even a win there would fall well short of the national coalition needed to secure him the nomination. Is Trump therefore unstoppable?
No: Trump can be stopped if his opponents recognize that their primary goal is denying him a first-ballot victory at the convention. The only way to produce a contested convention is for Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich to stay in the race, but focus on cooperating rather than competing. Greater cooperation between Kasich and Rubio in particular is crucial: The Florida senator and Ohio governor are competing for the same voters; their competition serves Trump’s interest. On Super Tuesday, Kasich won just under 10 percent of the vote in Virginia. Assuming that most of those voters would have gone to Rubio if Kasich hadn’t been in the race, Rubio would have defeated Trump in Virginia. The same is true in Vermont — with the roles reversed. If Rubio voters had voted for Kasich, Kasich would have topped Trump.
But neither Kasich nor Rubio should exit the race. Kasich is in a much better position to win his home state of Ohio than is Rubio. Recent polls show Trump leading Kasich in Ohio by only about five points. Support for Rubio is around 13 percent. If Rubio voters are encouraged to vote for Kasich, the combined vote would raise Kasich significantly above Trump. In Florida the prognosis for opponents of Trump is bleaker, but not beyond redemption. Trump leads Rubio by approximately 20 points, but Rubio is still substantially better positioned than Kasich to challenge Trump. If Kasich voters give their support to Rubio, Rubio will have a ten-point rather than 20-point deficit to make up. Cooperation between Rubio and Kasich may thus allow them both to win their home states, at Trump’s expense.
#share#Cruz is particularly valuable in the effort to stop Trump, even though explicit cooperation between him and the other candidates is less likely. Unlike Rubio and Kasich, who are competing for the anti-Trump vote, Cruz and Trump are pursuing many of the same voters. If Cruz suspended his campaign, many of his supporters might choose Trump instead of Rubio or Kasich. Cruz has already denied Trump victories in Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Alaska. He should continue to siphon support from Trump in the Louisiana primary and the Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine caucuses on March 5. His presence in the campaign will become even more important beginning March 15, when primaries become winner-take-all.
The most urgent need is a deal between Kasich and Rubio allowing each the chance to win his home state. After that, further cooperation may be hoped for. Since all contests until March 15 are governed by proportional representation, the most important variable in determining the importance of a deal between Kasich and Rubio in a particular state is the threshold for acquiring delegates. The higher the threshold, the greater the likelihood that competition between the two will undercut both. Louisiana (March 5), Puerto Rico (March 6), and Idaho (March 8) all have primaries with a 20 percent threshold for acquiring delegates. For these states a deal is probably indispensable. The Michigan and Mississippi primaries (both March 8) have a 15 percent threshold. Given the large number of delegates at stake in Michigan, a deal would be highly desirable. The thresholds in the Maine and Kansas caucuses (March 5) are 10 percent, and in the Kentucky caucus (also March 5) 5 percent, making cooperation less essential in those states. After March 15, Republicans can take stock of where the race stands and determine a path forward.
#related#If a contested convention could be achieved, it could settle on a popular, well-qualified dark-horse candidate like Paul Ryan. Ryan proved acceptable to both grass-roots conservatives and moderates in the House election for speaker. He may be respected widely enough to unify Republicans in a presidential contest. Although a brokered convention that denies Trump the nomination will leave his supporters aggrieved, settling on a stellar dark-horse candidate like Ryan should be easier for them to swallow than choosing one of the existing candidates whom Trump dominated in the primaries. Although there remains a danger that Trump would run as a third-party candidate and cost the Republicans the election, the dangers posed by letting him grab the Republican nomination candidacy are even greater.