Until Wisconsin, Donald Trump was considered likely to win a majority of pledged delegates. In truth, his plan to reach 1,237 was already very vulnerable; Ted Cruz had built enough support by March 15 that even adding a modest share of Marco Rubio’s voters was likely to start him on the road to deny Mr. Trump a majority.
But after Mr. Trump’s loss Tuesday, the conventional wisdom has gone too far in the other direction. His path to 1,237 is still clear. It is certainly narrow, but it may require him to do only two challenging things: win two tossup states, Indiana and California. There’s an argument he’s currently favored in both.
Yes, Mr. Trump lost badly in Wisconsin and, perhaps more important, Mr. Cruz fared really well. It could prove to be a turning point in the race for the Republican nomination, the moment when Mr. Trump’s opposition finally coalesced behind a single conservative candidate.
But the word “could” isn’t a cop-out. It really only “could” be a turning point. It won’t be if Mr. Cruz can’t maintain such a large share of the non-Trump vote.
Mr. Cruz’s strength might have depended on a convergence of factors that can’t necessarily be repeated, like the strong support of the state’s G.O.P. establishment; one of the nation’s most engaged electorates; strategic voting to deny Mr. Trump; and a deep pool of religious and well-educated conservatives.
All of the factors that made it so easy for Mr. Cruz to consolidate the anti-Trump vote will mostly fade in the Northeast, where the race turns next. Neither polls nor the political establishment will send a clear signal that Mr. Cruz — and only Mr. Cruz — can beat Mr. Trump.
John Kasich has just as good a case. He ran ahead of Mr. Cruz in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and in the D.C. suburbs. He also ran ahead of Mr. Cruz around Detroit and in the core of the Chicago metropolitan area.
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THE 2016 RACE
If Cruz Keeps This Pace, Trump Won’t Get a Majority of Delegates APRIL 6, 2016
That didn’t happen in Wisconsin — Mr. Cruz won Dane County, which includes Madison — but even there Mr. Kasich was in striking distance. He won 29 percent of the vote, far better than his 14 percent statewide result.
The polls in the Northeast suggest that Mr. Cruz would be lucky to end with the split of anti-Trump voters (38 percent for him and 29 percent for Mr. Kasich) that he got in Madison. Mr. Kasich has generally run ahead of Mr. Cruz in the Northeast.
Not only will Mr. Cruz struggle to maintain the same level of support among non-Trump voters, but the Northeastern states are also far more favorable to Mr. Trump than Wisconsin. Wisconsin was always poised to be one of his worst states; the same measures suggest that Mr. Trump should approach or exceed 50 percent in some Northeastern states.
The combination of better territory for Mr. Trump and a more divided field could allow Mr. Trump to win in the Northeastern corridor by huge delegate margins, perhaps winning more than 80 percent of them on April 19 (New York) and April 26 (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island). Mr. Trump could win even more than that if he ends up faring well in deeply Democratic districts with few Republicans and many minorities.
His path is narrow enough that every delegate counts. He might need as much as 90 percent of the delegates from the Northeastern states and West Virginia to keep his delegate target in California manageable. But it’s not very difficult to imagine Mr. Trump doing so well. It’s basically what the polls say he’d get, at least right now.
The most important state that no one is talking about is Indiana. The contest there comes one week after the Northeastern primaries, and it’s arguably the most balanced state left in the race. It has a mix of both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump’s strengths, somewhat like the two states where they’ve fought two of their closest races so far, North Carolina and Missouri.
Indiana awards its delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district, which could easily allow Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz to claim most of the state’s 57 delegates with a modest victory.
There isn’t much polling data in Indiana, but Mr. Cruz would be a favorite if he could get the level of support among non-Trump voters that he did in Wisconsin. It would be a closer race than Wisconsin; it’s the type of state where Mr. Trump ought to approach or exceed 40 percent of the vote, not the 35 percent he won in Wisconsin.
The catch, though, is that there’s no guarantee that Mr. Kasich will be that weak again. If anything, after what is expected to be a wave of big wins for Mr. Trump in the Northeastern states and potentially a series of second-place finishes by Mr. Kasich, it might be more difficult for Mr. Cruz.
Provided he dominates in the Northeast as expected, Mr. Trump will have a good chance to win the nomination if he can carry Indiana. Without it, it’s very difficult for him to reach 1,237. He would either have to win nearly all of California’s delegates or win a state where he’s an underdog — most likely Montana — and post a clear win in California. It’s possible, but it’s hard to see how he would be poised to do either of those things if he’s losing in Indiana.
If Mr. Trump wins big in the Northeast, carries Indiana and picks up a few proportional delegates in New Mexico, Oregon and Washington (as he is all but assured to do), the race will come down to California on June 7.
It’s too far away to be very confident about whether Mr. Trump would have a realistic chance to win the 70 percent or so of California delegates that he would need to win an outright majority.
But, at least right now, it looks realistic.
Three top-tier pollsters have shown that Mr. Trump could pull it off: the vaunted Field Poll, a Los Angeles Times/U.S.C. poll conducted by the prominent Democratic firm GQR and a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. The three polls found Mr. Trump ahead by 7, 1 and 11 points among likely Republican voters, with Mr. Trump winning between 36 and 38 percent of the vote.
There’s good reason to believe that Mr. Trump’s weakest poll — The Los Angeles Times/U.S.C. poll that showed him ahead by one point among likely voters — underestimates his strength. It showed Mr. Trump ahead by seven points among all registered Republicans, like the methodologically similar Field Poll. The detailed results offered reason to think that Mr. Trump’s support might more closely resemble that seven-point margin than the reported one-point edge among likely voters.
The poll, which used the state’s voter registration file and therefore had information on the past vote history of respondents, found that Mr. Trump was ahead by five points among voters who participated in either the 2012 or 2014 Republican primaries (neither of which were especially high profile).
It found he was up by eight points among voters who participated in either the 2014 or 2012 general election. It found he was up by two points among people who voted in both the low-turnout 2014 and 2012 primaries. All considered, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Trump would be ahead by only one point in a high-turnout primary — especially given the state’s penchant for early voting.
Mr. Trump would have a very good shot to win 70 percent of the delegates with a seven-point victory, since the state awards its delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district. He would still have at least a chance to earn 70 percent of the delegates with a far smaller margin of victory.
It’s also a state where Mr. Kasich could fare quite well, if he’s still relevant. There are a lot of districts in fairly liberal stretches of coastal California where he could break 25 percent of the vote — which again might help Mr. Trump win with a lower share of the vote.
Obviously a lot could change between now and June, but this is not a crazy scenario. It’s consistent with the current state polling and it’s consistent with how demographically similar states have voted so far this cycle. If Mr. Cruz can’t unify Republican voters, it might just happen.