Here’s what I’d watch in the fight to deny Trump the nomination at Cleveland:
- Trump’s number. This is obvious, but he has to be held below 1,237, which now looks much more likely, if not assured. And the further he misses it by, the better. Trump will argue that 1,237 is just a technicality, but this argument has less purchase the further he is from the magic number and it will also make it harder for him to make up the gap with lobbying with unbound delegates.
- The Margin with Cruz. The closer Cruz is to Trump, the easier it will be for the convention to turn to him. It is much less of a leap to turn to a candidate in a close second than a distant second. The ideal scenario is that Cruz is close enough to Trump that he could finish ahead of him on a first ballot with the help of unbound delegates.
- The Late Momentum. Outside the question of pure delegate numbers, it will matter who looks like he has the late momentum heading into July. California will be particularly important in this respect.
- General Election Polling. If Trump continues to poll as poorly as he does now, it is going to be a lot to ask of the delegates that they hand him the nomination, when it looks like a suicide pact. By the same token, the better Cruz’s polling looks, the better for him.
I’m not a fan of the idea of someone new parachuting in at the convention. I suppose it’s possible if a convention deadlocks and there is a complete meltdown with South Korean parliament–style fist fights on the floor. But the only reliable way to know whether someone is any good at running for president is running for president. Trump and Cruz have both done it, and won millions of votes. The choice between the two of them is what the party faces, and, to my mind, it’s not a close call.