I have long been critical of Ted Cruz’s election strategy, and for good reason: for months he has seemed to focus solely on the party’s most conservative factions and ignored the two-thirds of GOP voters who do not tell pollsters they are “very conservative”. But last night’s results show that the pugnacious senator may finally have broken through with the voter group that always decides who wins, the somewhat conservative voter.
Trump had won this group in every state with exit polls except the four he lost (Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and Ohio — there were not exit polls in the other states he has lost) prior to last night. He had beaten Cruz, moreover, by large margins even as Marco Rubio faded. Trump won somewhat conservative with between 40 and 46 percent of the vote in Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina. Had he done that last night, the race would have been too close to call.
Instead, Cruz won somewhat conservatives by eleven points, 47–36. Since this group is almost always the largest in every state, usually with between 40 and 45 percent of all voters, winning them by a hefty margin is usually the road to victory.
Cruz’s gambit that former Rubio voters would prefer the devil they knew to the devil they didn’t clearly paid off. There’s little reason to think that will change in future states. Trump’s persona, like Cruz’s, is pretty clearly fixed. And while Rubio voters would prefer neither man, they clearly prefer the conservative Cruz to the phlegmatic Trump.
This probably won’t help Cruz as much in New York. Popular candidates always do better in their home states, and New York is The Donald’s universe. States in the New York City media market — New Jersey and Connecticut — may also prove impervious to the Senator’s charms. But Trump needs much more than a Big Apple romp to win. He needs to win in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and California to triumph. And his ability to do that is now in question.
Candidates often stumble on the way to the nomination. Reagan lost Michigan and Pennsylvania to George H.W. Bush in 1980 after he had essentially sown the nomination up. Obama and Romney both lost states to their rivals in the mid and late stages of their battles. But Trump is not so far ahead that he can afford many more stumbles.
There’s now no way this race ends before California. The peculiar factors at play in the Golden State, especially the large immigrant population and the enduring housing crash, make it more favorable territory for Trump than Wisconsin. But Cruz now can have hope that if he keeps beating the #NeverTrump drum, he can win the somewhat conservative vote and with it the lion’s share of California’s 172 delegates. And that would send him Cruzin’ into Cleveland on a big, big high.