Elections are inherently zero-sum contests, so it is paradoxically correct that Donald Trump showed signs of weakness in the recent round of Republican voting, but the opposition to Trump weakened even more, leaving Trump even more strongly positioned to prevail. The last several days have seen an important new stage in the Republican primary. Trump is not progressing toward the nomination any more rapidly, but the forces arrayed against him are disintegrating.
The original anti-Trump strategy, formulated in the wake of Marco Rubio’s inspiring second-place victory in South Carolina, envisioned the Florida senator eventually consolidating the non-Trump vote. Super Tuesday dealt that plan a grievous blow, all but closing off Rubio’s path to capturing a majority of the delegates. Super Tuesday forced the anti-Trump Republicans to switch their strategy from consolidation to fragmentation. If they could not give Rubio a majority, they could at least deny Trump one by deploying the non-Trump candidates regionally, where they could pick off delegates from him in their areas of strength. Rubio would take Florida, Kasich Ohio, Cruz parts of the South.
Saturday’s voting threw that plan into question as well by revealing a deep and probably terminal weakness in Rubio’s candidacy. Rubio’s inability to gain traction always seemed puzzling. He seems like the perfect, laboratory-designed vessel to advance the cause of the Republican donor class: deeply conservative on economics and foreign and social policy, and happy to carry water for his donors (as seen by his ideology-free donor constituent service on issues like Puerto Rican debt and sugar subsidies), while possessed of a friendly personality and minority background that made him a plausible general-election salesman. Yet something never quite clicked with Rubio and the voters.
Rubio’s recent decline coincides with his recent adoption of harsh attacks on Trump as the central theme of his campaign. Rubio’s main asset used to be his broad acceptability to every wing of the Republican Party, a point he drove home by emphasizing his (putatively moral) refusal to tear down fellow members of the party of Lincoln. His attempt to out-Trump Trump forfeited much of Rubio’s likability. Rubio’s campaign may have figured that if juvenile bullying works for Trump, it can work for Rubio, too. It seems to have been mistaken. Rubio spent months compensating for his youth and relative lack of experience by presenting himself as stern and well-read. He gave the most detailed foreign-policy answers and constantly used the word serious as a way of showing that he was prepared for the job and not some callow youth in a hurry. His mockery of Trump forced him to give up that seriousness. Rubio tried to soften the blows of his attacks by delivering his insults with smiles and casual gestures. He was grinning open-mouthed, showing his teeth, and suddenly looking more childlike.
On Saturday, Rubio underperformed his expected showing in several states. The collapse appears to be carrying over — a new poll has him in single digits in Michigan, which may be an exaggeration of his weakness, but it indicates real distress.
Buoyed by his overperformance in recent voting, Cruz is openly bucking the informal plan to join forces against Trump. He is throwing resources into Florida, where a Rubio loss would probably end his candidacy. The replacement of an anti-Trump syndicate with Cruz, though, poses numerous problems. The first is that Trump might roll up enough delegates to take command of the race before Cruz can consolidate his position. If Trump wins Florida, and especially if he wins Ohio as well, he may become unstoppable. Republican Establishment resistance to the voters’ front-runner has softened, and a Trump win in Florida might make it fall apart completely.
A second problem is that Republican insiders loathe Cruz so deeply they may consider him no better, or even worse, than Trump. “It is why it has been so difficult to get an anti-Trump campaign together,” a Republican strategist told Politico. “If the ultimate beneficiary of anti-Trump efforts is Ted Cruz, the effort itself is probably not worthwhile.” The division within the party between pro- and anti-Trump factions is overlaid onto an older division between conservative pragmatists and conservative fantasists. Cruz is the leader of a fantasist wing that insists willpower can overcome any obstacles to the conservative agenda, including public opinion or the division of powers in the Constitution. Some Trump-hating Republicans like, or can live with, Cruz, but others cannot.
Finally, there is the mechanical problem of how Cruz would finalize his victory. Possibly he can overcome the above-mentioned obstacles and win an outright majority of delegates. Failing that, he would need to prevail at a contested convention in July. How is a candidate who built his national brand identity in opposition to political insiders, and the entire concept of deal-making in general, going to gain the nomination by cutting deals with insiders?
And — not that Cruz would be bound by his rhetoric — Cruz has disclaimed any plan to win the nomination at the convention, predicting voters would “revolt.” This represents another fear standing in the way of the anti-Trump Republicans. A convention that wrests the prize away from a populist like Trump would predictably trigger mass demonstrations, and maybe a write-in candidacy by Trump. Some conservatives argue the price of a schism would be worthwhile in order to prevent Trump from taking over the party. But few Republicans would go along with it.
This leaves Cruz and Trump as the two overwhelmingly most likely candidates. The convention scenario will probably require a rapprochement between the two. It is hard to imagine an outcome now that does not boggle the mind. Trump-Cruz? Cruz-Trump? One of the two alongside the reanimated corpse of General Augusto Pinochet?