While most of the country — including me — was watching the season six premiere of “Game of Thrones,” the campaigns of Ted Cruz and John Kasich announced a major strategic alliance. Kasich would stop campaigning in — and trying to win — Indiana’s primary May 3. Cruz would do the same in Oregon on May 17 and New Mexico on June 7.
The goal is simple: To keep Donald Trump from winning the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the GOP’s presidential nominee this fall. “We are very comfortable with our delegate position in Indiana already, and given the current dynamics of the primary there, we will shift our campaign’s resources West and give the Cruz campaign a clear path in Indiana,” Kasich chief campaign strategist John Weaver said Sunday night.
Achieving the goal is WAY harder for me to see happening — for a bunch of a reasons, which I’ll get to in a minute. But before all that, it’s worth making this point: This is a massive gamble born entirely of desperation. What probably became clear to the Cruz campaign and, to a lesser extent, the Kasich campaign, is that they weren’t going to beat Trump in Indiana’s winner-take-most primary and, by losing, would put the real estate billionaire on a reasonable path to the GOP nomination.
And so they acted. Which they deserve credit for — since most of the time politicians in unwinnable/untenable situations continue to cling to the idea that everyone else is wrong and they are right, right up until they lose.
But action doesn’t always produce the desired results. And I think that’s what is going to happen here. Let’s list the reasons why:
1. Candidates and campaigns are strategic. Voters aren’t. The theory behind this alliance is the same thinking that motivates candidates and campaigns to believe that endorsements are a critical moment in a campaign. They almost never are. Why? Because the average voter doesn’t care who some other politician thinks would be the best choice in a different race. And they definitely don’t want a politician they sort of like telling them to be for someone else who they likely don’t like at all. The idea that a Kasich voter would be for Cruz “for the broader good of the Republican party” is the sort of stuff that makes sense on a phone call where this deal was cut between two longtime political operatives. In the real world of voters, it’s a much harder sell. Voters don’t tend to look at the big picture. They vote for who they like or who they think understands them. Or in this election, the candidate who matches their anger and alienation. Not the candidate that some other candidate told them to be for.
2. The overlap between Kasich and Cruz voters is almost nonexistent. Ted Cruz is a Southern senator whose entire campaign is premised on two ideas: a) People who are part of the “Washington cartel” are corrupt and dumb and b) he is the one true conservative willing to stand up to President Obama on, among other things, the Affordable Care Act. John Kasich is someone who spent two decades in Washington — he was the chairman of the Budget Committee! — and who, among other things, participated in the Medicaid Expansion program as part of Obamacare. Cruz is the “no retreat, no surrender” candidate. Kasich is the “can’t we all get along” candidate.
So if you are an Indiana Republican who was for Kasich, it’s hard to imagine that you agree with Cruz on almost anything. Ditto a Cruz voter in Oregon or New Mexico. These candidates were on the opposite ends of the GOP spectrum even when there were 17 candidates running! The only reason you would be a Kasich voter for Cruz in Indiana is because Kasich told you to be. (And there is some doubt about how Kasich feels about that matter.) No way.
3. The alliance perfectly fits Trump’s “rigged” narrative. If Donald Trump could have engineered a scenario that would fire up his anti-establishment base any more than it already is, the public announcement of a Cruz-Kasich alliance would be how he would have done it. Now it’s not just hard-to-understand delegate math where the GOP establishment is plotting against Trump but a high-profile handshake agreement between a sitting senator and governor. (Given the negative consequences of going public with the Cruz-Kasich deal, why did the two campaigns do it? They needed to signal their voters and, as importantly, their aligned super PACs to stand down.)
“Collusion is often illegal in many other industries, and yet these two Washington insiders have had to revert to collusion in order to stay alive,” Trump said in a statement on the deal. “It is sad that two grown politicians have to collude against one person who has only been a politician for ten months in order to try and stop that person from getting the Republican nomination.”
Kasich just announced that he wants the people of Indiana to vote for him. Typical politician – can’t make a deal work.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
That is directly in the Trump message wheelhouse. And, if he needed a way to energize his supporters in Indiana and beyond, he now has a perfect lever to do just that. THEY are trying to take it from you! THEY are colluding! THEY think you don’t matter! The way to get back at “them”? To vote for Trump, of course.
Gambles sometimes pay off — even one with as long odds as this one. And the time to gamble is when you are on the verge of losing it all. (Remember that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.)
That’s where Cruz and Kasich find themselves. And it’s why they made this deal. But none of that makes it more likely that the deal will work. It almost certainly won’t.