GOP Race Down to ‘Jump Ball’ in Indiana

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, talks with a supporter during a stop of his presidential campaign Thursday April 28, 2016 at an Elkhart, Ind. restaurant. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

A victory by Donald Trump in Indiana’s Republican primary on Tuesday would make his win of the Republican nomination almost inevitable, and a Cruz victory would likely push the race into a contested ballot at the RNC convention in Cleveland this Summer.

Polls are all over the place as the race heads into its final 48-hour sprint. It is fitting, perhaps, that after months of campaigning, more than $100 million in spending and more than a dozen candidate casualties, the GOP fight comes down to a jump ball in the Hoosier State.

A poll released Sunday by NBC/WSJ shows Trump with a 15-point lead over his chief rival Sen. Ted Cruz. In the NBC poll, conducted Tuesday-Wednesday, Trump has 49 percent support, followed by Cruz at 34 and Ohio Governor John Kasich with 13 percent.

A poll released Friday by the respected Mike Downs Center for Politics at the University of Indiana, however, showed Cruz with a 16 point lead over Trump. In that poll, Cruz had 45 percent support, followed by Trump with 29 percent and Kasich with 13 percent.

A couple caveats are in order. The Downs poll was conducted over a very long two week window of interviews, April 13-27. This covers a period of the race pre-dating Trump’s sweep of six Northeastern states, beginning April 19th in his home state of New York.

The NBC poll was conducted immediately after Trump’s sweep of the Northeast, but before Cruz’s announcement of Carly Fiorina as his running-mate and his endorsement by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Additionally, both polls show John Kasich with much lower levels of support than he garners in other public polls. The NBC poll seems to assign much of the evaporation in support for Kasich to Trump, while the Downs Center tips that support to Cruz.

In Wisconsin, a large portion of Kasich’s support shifted at the end to Cruz. The Indiana primary will likely be determined by whether Kasich’s support shifts to Trump or Cruz.

Outside of NBC and Downs, most public polling of Indiana shows a tight-race with an edge to Trump right around the margin of error. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Trump with a 4.1 point lead in the Hossier State.

There are 57 delegates at stake in Indiana’s winner-take-most primary. The candidate winning the most votes across the state earns 30 delegates. Another 27 delegates are awarded through the state’s 9 congressional district, with the winner of each district receiving 3 delegates. There is no apportionment; the runner-up of the statewide vote or in the congressional districts receives zero delegates.

If Cruz were to win Indiana and pick-up the lion-share of its delegates, Trump would likely end the primary campaign a few dozen delegates short of a simple majority, based on current polling and campaign trends. Cruz is currently expected to do well in upcoming states like Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon and Washington, which would help him blunt Trump’s current momentum heading into the massive June 7th contests.

California, with its rich trove of 172 delegates, votes on the final day of the primaries. Almost all of the state’s delegates are awarded through its 53 congressional districts. With the nomination in the balance, the Golden State would witness aggressive hand-to-hand campaigning everywhere in the state.

A Trump victory in Indiana would effectively end the nomination contest. Trump is coming off a sweep of the Northeastern states at the end of April. A victory in the more competitive Midwest, in a state where Cruz has essentially staked his campaign, would likely begin a wave of endorsements and delegate support towards Trump.

At some point in a campaign, the evolution of a frontrunner to prohibitive nominee is sparked by a series of self-fulfilling prophecies. Barring some outside event or gaffe, a candidate’s momentum fuels itself forward as party activists shift their attention to the general election.  This is especially true when the opposing party appears to settle finally on its nominee, as the Democrats have with Hillary Clinton.

Mathematically, Cruz and his campaign could survive a loss in Tuesday’s Indiana primary. Even with a win in the Hoosier State, Trump still needs to post big wins across California to secure the minimum number of delegates he needs to secure the nomination with an outright majority.

Campaigns are not based on simple math alone, though. Cruz has planted himself in Indiana over the past week and has devoted considerable financial resources in the state. He has brought in campaign surrogates and even took the extraordinary step of announcing his pick for a running mate. He has even secured the endorsement of the state’s Republican Governor, who will campaign with Cruz in the final days of the campaign.

A loss in Indiana would end Cruz’s status as a rival challenger and confirm him as well-organized “spoiler.” A spoiler candidate, literally, is past their “sell-by” date and can only shave support off the frontrunner. Sustaining that support between now and the end of July, when the Republicans meet in Cleveland, will be almost impossible.

So, what exactly is the state of play in Indiana right now? Looking at all polling and analyzing the individual campaigns, it seems to be close to a toss-up, with a slight edge for Trump.

If Trump wins he will be the Republican nominee. If Cruz wins, the battle will extend through the summer to the shores of Lake Erie.