What the March 15 Primaries Mean for the GOP Race

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Republican Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami Area
Absolutely no one predicted these would be the final three candidates. Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

Yet another unofficially “super” Tuesday has led to some dramatic shifts in the Republican primary — though thanks to mixed results for Donald Trump in Florida and Ohio, no one is entirely sure where the race goes from here. Had Trump managed to trounce both Marco Rubio and John Kasich in their home states, Ted Cruz might have been the last Trump challenger left standing. Instead, Rubio bowed out and Kasich got a momentum boost, leaving the Republican Party in an even more awkward position.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board tried to focus on the bright side, calling Kasich’s win “impressive,” and assuring Republicans that fighting Trump all the way to the convention would be a good thing:

All of this gives Mr. Kasich some hope of competing better than he has so far beyond his home state. His economic record is a strength he should stress, taking on Mr. Trump more forcefully on policies. The New Yorker will now train his insults on Mr. Kasich the way he has everyone else in the race, and the Governor will have to show the determination to shake up Washington that voters want this year. One way to do that is to start making a more systematic, forceful case against President Obama’s record and Hillary Clinton’s policies and how he would upend the status quo.

Mr. Rubio’s voters are likely to go to Mr. Kasich more than to the other two candidates, and many of the remaining states are in the Northeast and Midwest where the Governor’s brand of reform conservatism should play well. Mr. Kasich can also make the case, validated in every poll, that he has by far the best chance to beat Mrs. Clinton in November. On that score, Messrs. Kasich and Rubio should consider joining up to campaign as a potential GOP ticket. The two share the same political temperament and they would also send a message of GOP unity that neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Cruz can offer.

Others were far less optimistic about Kasich’s chances going forward. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said that despite the Kasich campaign’s celebratory tone, the math just doesn’t add up for the Ohio governor:

The Kasich team should enjoy tonight because the delegate math is, well, impossible for him. He would have to win more than 100 percent of the remaining available delegates to get to the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the party’s nominee.

No matter, argued the Kasich campaign in a memo released Tuesday night; “With the electoral map shifting significantly in our favor, Governor Kasich is positioned to accumulate a large share of the almost 1,000 remaining delegates and enter Cleveland in strong position to become the nominee,” wrote chief strategist John Weaver. Um, okay. Kasich now seems likely to hang around at the periphery of the Trump-Cruz race for the next few months, hoping to collect delegates and lead a revivifying of the GOP establishment in the event the convention deadlocks and he emerges as a consensus candidate. “We are going to go all the way to Cleveland,” Kasich promised Tuesday night.

The New York Times’ Gail Collins wrote that considering Kasich’s record in Ohio, it’s ironic that he’s considered the last, best hope for Republican moderates:

Right now he certainly seems like the only non-appalling option the Republicans have, even though there are a lot of people in Ohio right now who are shaking their heads in stupefaction at the sight of their governor as the nation’s poster boy for moderation. He’s signed an absolute mountain of anti-abortion bills — nearly half of the clinics in the state have shut down during his tenure. His enthusiasm for giving public funding to private, for-profit schools has been scandalous. And on the economic front he has the usual conservative contempt for taxing residents according to their ability to pay.

But he doesn’t think we should ban Muslims or deport millions of immigrants. And there’s always that thing about the downtrodden. This year, it’s as good as the Republicans can hope for. And the other options are so really, really bad.

According to Bloomberg View’s Albert R. Hunt, Kasich is hoping his moderate image will help make the case that he’s the best candidate to take on Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Cruz is hoping to continue chipping away at Trump’s delegate count:

Kasich, who has no chance to get anywhere near a majority of the delegates going into Cleveland, is counting on a strong showing in all the big states outside the South. He also hopes to pick up some delegates even in unfriendly states by winning in friendly congressional districts. That, coupled with polls showing him a strong general election candidate, might give him leverage at the convention in his home state. That’s at least a rationale for staying in the race.

The Cruz camp believes he can almost wipe out Trump’s delegate advantage before the final contests on June 7, when 303 delegates will be chosen. Almost 60 percent of those will be in California, where the winner of each congressional district gets all the district’s delegates. That puts a premium on strategic targeting, his campaign’s strength. Another big June 7 contest is New Jersey’s, in which the winner gets all 51 delegates. All the candidates are focusing on Governor Chris Christie: Trump riding his endorsement and Cruz and Kasich hoping to take advantage of his weak approval rating at home.

As the Post’s Dan Balz explained, Kasich’s win in Ohio upended Cruz’s plan to take on Trump one-on-one:

Some national polls have shown that when matched head-to-head against Trump, Cruz enjoys more support. That is the foundation on which the Cruz camp is building its strategy for winning the nomination. His advisers see plenty of opportunities ahead and anticipate a big day on June 7, the final day of the primaries, when the biggest prize is California and its 172 delegates.

But that strategy suffered a setback on Tuesday when Kasich won Ohio. Cruz’s advisers no doubt were privately pulling for Trump to do to Kasich what he did to Rubio. The Texas senator can ill afford a revived Kasich candidacy.

Cruz’s team also is confident that they can outperform Trump’s campaign in the combat that will take place at state party conventions over the coming weeks. It will be at those conventions that the delegates will be named. Cruz’s team will work every angle possible to fill slots with friendly delegates, even if many are pledged to Trump on the first ballot in Cleveland.

However, FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman argued that math and the election calendar are still on Trump’s side:

Consider this: Up until today, Trump had won 42 percent of all GOP delegates with just 34 percent of the vote. By my estimate tonight, it appears he’s on track to win about 67 percent of the delegates at stake, even though he’s averaged only a hair over 40 percent of today’s votes. That’s a huge disparity. The reason: Today’s transition from proportional allocation to winner-take-all.

From now on, even tiny Trump pluralities (like the one we’re seeing just barely in Missouri, barring some magical Cruz precincts) will net him an enormous shares of delegates. Up until today, only 5 percent of all GOP delegates were awarded on a winner-take-all basis. Between tonight and the final primaries in June, 64 percent of GOP delegates will be allocated on a winner-take-all basis. That’s an enormous catalyst for Trump’s drive to 1,237.

The Times’ Nate Cohn agreed that while Trump lost a lot of delegates in Ohio, a three-way race may help him secure the nomination:

The combination of Mr. Trump’s blue-state strength, of the more evenly divided opposition in the North and of delegate rules that increasingly favor winners makes it easy to imagine how Mr. Trump could amass an outright majority of delegates.

Mr. Trump won Michigan and Illinois by wide margins, with less than 40 percent of the vote, since Mr. Kasich and Mr. Cruz neatly split the preponderance of the non-Trump voters.

USA Today concluded that after Tuesday, only two scenarios remain, and neither is good for the Republican Party:

One is that Trump wins the nomination. The other is that he falls short of the 1,237 delegates needed for a majority and is denied the nomination at a contested convention in Cleveland.

The first outcome means that the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan hitches its wagon to a demagogue and attention junkie who 35% of Republicans in a recent poll said they would never vote for.

The other is that the selection of someone else — maybe current runner-up Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or home-state favorite Kasich — sets off a vicious backlash from Trump supporters that ruptures the party.

The Times’ Frank Bruni predicted that Kasich and Cruz are strong enough to ensure that the GOP is in for a chaotic convention fight — one that’s likely to hand the presidency to one of the party’s biggest foes:

They see a probable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is so personally flawed, politically clumsy and out of sync with this anti-establishment moment that she’s ripe for defeat. Then they look at their own contest and see an outcome that might well ensure her victory

There are traditionalists rooting for Trump over Cruz, and the thinking of some goes like this: Neither candidate can win the presidency. But while Cruz has almost no crossover appeal beyond committed Republicans, Trump might draw enough independents, blue-collar Democrats and new voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania to buoy Republicans in tight Senate races there.

Besides which, he scrambles all rules and all precedents so thoroughly that you never know. Victory isn’t unthinkable, and better a Republican who’s allergic to caution, oblivious to actual information and altogether dangerous than a Democrat who’ll dole out all the plum administration jobs to her own party.

If he’s right, the big winner of the March 15 Republican primaries may be Hillary Clinton.