Anyone who made the mistake of predicting that Donald Trump’s defeat in the Wisconsin primary two weeks ago finally sounded the much-anticipated death knell for his candidacy needed to eat a big plate of crow Tuesday night, as Trump crushed John Kasich and Ted Cruz in his home state. The mogul won a sizable majority of the vote in every part of the state and took 90-91 of the 95 available pledged delegates. He seems to have nailed what he needed to accomplish (according to a finely calibrated estimate by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver) in order to stay on the track — or perhaps it’s better described as a tightrope — to a first-ballot majority of pledged delegates.
Because Trump has almost certainly lost hope of winning on anything after the first ballot in Cleveland, he has no margin for error. So his immediate challenge is to maximize his potential delegate haul in the five northeastern states holding primaries a week from now. One of those states, Delaware, should give all its delegates to Trump on a winner-take-all basis. Two others, Connecticut and Maryland, award some delegates to the statewide plurality winner and the rest to the plurality winner in congressional districts. Trump could sweep all the delegates in both states or instead get picked at from both directions in the odd CD by Cruz or Kasich. Rhode Island is a sort of throwaway proportional-delegate-award state, and Pennsylvania (like West Virginia in May) elects a majority of its delegates directly, with no binding candidate preferences.
Trump needs to cook in the Northeast because, afterward, the terrain gets more difficult, with Indiana providing another midwestern winner-take-all-by-congressional-district test in early May and then several winner-take-all primaries in plains and western states where Ted Cruz should clean up. Trump is almost sure to sweep winner-take-all New Jersey on June 7, and then it will all come down to another state where plurality winners statewide and in congressional districts take the jackpot in 172-delegate California.
Unsurprisingly, given his comments about “New York values,” the Empire State was not good to Ted Cruz, and not just because his rival Trump did so well. Cruz finished a poor third in New York with no delegates, and his long-standing effort to create a one-on-one contest with Trump was once again delayed by a relatively good Kasich showing. The Ohio governor will now naturally make a big push in the northeastern primaries just ahead and will then probably concentrate on trying to win a few California districts where a close three-way race could yield a three-delegate harvest.
We can expect a lot of hype from team Kasich in the days just ahead, along with dismissive sounds from team Cruz of anything happening other than its steady progress in picking off uncommitted delegates and later support from delegates bound to Trump on the first or second ballots. The closer Trump gets to a first-ballot victory, the greater the pressure will be on Kasich to get out, particularly if he’s failed to reduce the Donald’s northeastern-delegate haul. Even as the Kasich campaign celebrates its relatively good showing in New York, it should pay attention to the exit-poll finding that 70 percent of New York Republicans think the candidate with the most votes should win the nomination.
If there’s anything left in the Republican Establishment’s anti-Trump arsenal, the time to fire it off has definitively arrived. The #NeverTrump crowd shouldn’t count on California to bail it out.