After Super Tuesday, the GOP Establishment Looks For a Nice Losing Strategy

Donald Trump March 1, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The signals sent by the Super Tuesday Republican primaries couldn’t be more muddled. There were good signals for everyone.

Donald Trump did great – not quite as well as he could have done, but not as badly as his worst-case scenario. Ted Cruz won in Texas, and almost as importantly, can point to victory in the closed Oklahoma primary as evidence that he wins when only Republicans are allowed to vote – exactly the kind of talking point he wanted to come away with. Marco Rubio substantially over-performed his polls, while Trump performed somewhat below his, which is all the evidence “Marcomentum” needed to keep rolling along.

Considering how deeply and seriously the Republican electorate is divided, that seems like an appropriate outcome. With John Kasich determined to stick it out until Ohio, and Ben Carson determined to stick it out until his laundry is done, the stage is set for a decisive battle on March 15… unless the electorate is so contentious that it gives everyone just enough support to slog onward to the brokered convention that seemed so improbable a year ago.

Here’s a look at some of the stronger gusts blowing from the spin rooms on Wednesday morning:

Trump was damaged by his worst news cycle to date: Rubio boosters, in particular, will point to their man’s performance above his poll numbers as evidence Trump has slipped after the pounding he took at the last GOP debate, and the ensuing rough news cycle:

Rubio himself talked about this on Tuesday night, encouraged by exit polls that showed him doing well among late deciders: “Just five days ago, we began to unmask the true nature of the front-runner so far in this race. Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist. And in just five days, we have seen the impact it is having all across the country. We are seeing, in state after state, his numbers coming down. Our numbers going up.”

Cruz can also say he did better than the last round of polls suggested, and he has much more impressive claim to actually winning states than Rubio does:

Trump wasn’t damaged all that much: Conversely, Trump supporters can say their candidate took his worst beating of the primary, shrugged it off, and still won seven out of eleven states, capping off the evening with a very impressive victory speech that was either degraded or enhanced by the amusing body language and facial expressions of Governor Chris Christie standing behind him.  

Sure, people are making fun of Christie on Twitter, but anyone who thinks all that attention is an absolute minus for Trump hasn’t been paying much attention to his campaign style. Every viral video clip of Christie looking like he deeply regrets whatever he ate for dinner is also a viral video clip of Trump talking, and he chose his words very well.

Analysts who confidently declare Trump fatally wounded aren’t taking his supporters, and their disenchantment with both corrupt Washington and the Republican Party leadership, seriously enough. They’re tired of being dismissed, marginalized, and taken for granted – that’s the point of the Trump insurgency. If Rubio and Cruz can find an effective way to reach out to them, instead of just bashing Trump, they might have a window of opportunity over the next two weeks.

Rubio should drop out and pass the baton to Cruz. Of course, many Trump supporters would say there’s no way for Marco Rubio to reach out to them. They either don’t trust him personally, after the Gang of Eight immigration fiasco, or they loathe the GOP Establishment, and he’s in the Establishment lane. Trump voters will dismiss even his most carefully crafted appeals as trickery. Many of them are deadly serious about staying home, or going third party, instead of voting for the Establishment. The Establishment has only itself to blame for that.

Cruz is better-positioned to win over Trump voters, with some who don’t really like him willing to at least trust him more than Rubio. He’s done playing nice with Trump to woo his supporters, as demonstrated by his fiery Super Tuesday speech, but he didn’t get into the juvenile name-calling that makes Trump supporters roll their eyes and dismiss Rubio as a desperate wannabe punk.

Cruz also has a better chance of winning the primary outright, especially if Rubio ends up losing his home state of Florida. Cruz is already hitting that point in the spin rooms, and making a “strong play for Florida” that could clip Rubio’s wings and ensure the defeat Cruz needs.

Cruz should drop out and support Rubio, because he polls better against Clinton. That’s probably the most effective talking point for Rubio right now, but there’s obviously not much chance of Cruz walking away from his impressive wins on Tuesday night.

Rubio is hammering the point that Cruz has underperformed in Southern states, and among evangelicals, which discredits his strategy for winning the nomination. He went so far as calling Tuesday a “bad night” for Cruz because he didn’t sweep the Super Tuesday states, as his campaign once boasted it would do.

Rubio claims to be the party most injured by other candidates remaining in the race, and could make a fairly plausible case that John Kasich cost him Virginia. By implication, Cruz is so disliked by Kasich and Rubio voters – or they have so little faith in his ability to win the general election – that he wouldn’t be able to effectively consolidate them into a winning coalition against Trump.

Rubio’s big challenge is that he’s trying to reverse a “fizzle” narrative that’s probably less than two weeks away from being chiseled in stone. It’s not a good look for a candidate when Jake Tapper accuses him of being in denial.

Nobody should drop out, because they’re all doing a great job of forcing that brokered convention. This argument holds that since some of the supporters from each of the other candidates would flow to Trump, the best strategy is for everyone to stay in, and hold a 60 to 65 percent anti-Trump parachute open until the Republican Party floats into a brokered convention.

Trump has less than half the delegates awarded thus far, and only a little over a third of the popular vote.

The idea is that upcoming winner-take-all primaries could translate Trump’s polls into a delegate thrashing that ruins his front-runner narrative. However, those winner-take-all races could also help Trump build a string of close state leads into an overwhelming pile of delegates. The winner-take-all gambit is essentially designed to transform slim leads into mandates, so the Party looks unified going into the convention. It’s the graveyard of divided opposition.

Rubio is especially confident that he can turn things around in the all-or-nothing races ahead, especially if the other candidates drop out and make him the narrow front-runner – basically the opposite of the argument that everyone should stay in, to keep the anti-Trump vote alive.

Candidates may think that way, but voters usually don’t. Scenarios that assume large numbers of voters will follow complex strategies designed to force a brokered convention are likely to dissolve upon contact with reality.

It’s by no means clear that brokered convention would be in the best interests of the Republican Party. Quite the opposite – it virtually guarantees a Clinton win, because nothing will enrage Trump voters more than his historic high-energy campaign ending with backroom deals that hand the nomination to some Establishment grandee… maybe even someone who was never part of the 2016 primary. That’s the kind of finale that could fracture the Party for a generation to come.

If and when a serious push for that brokered convention gets under way, Trump will argue the Republican leadership is actively trying to lose the election to Hillary Clinton, while he’s the guy who wants to bring the Party together and win, win, win. You can already hear the speech in your head, can’t you?

Advocates of the brokered convention seem to assume Trump’s voters, and most of Cruz’s, are either hypnotized members of a personality cult, or brats throwing a tantrum who will come to their senses when it’s time to rally against Hillary Clinton… much as the Sanders kids are glumly trooping back into Clinton’s tent, as the Bern is not felt. The Republican Party has nowhere near the credibility with its voters, or ability to buy votes by handing out government lollipops, needed for such a consolidation to occur.

It’s over, and Trump won. So says Ed Rollins at Fox News in his “game over” post on Wednesday morning – incorrectly asserting that Trump won “the vast majority of delegates” on Super Tuesday, when he won less than half the total on offer, and less than 30 more than Cruz – but making a good case that the Trump movement is for real, he’s survived the hardest blows he’ll ever take, he’ll be more effective as a party “unifier” than his detractors assume, and suggesting that in the future it might be better to let Chris Christie exit the stage gracefully after he introduces Mr. Trump.

Dan Balz at the Washington Post agreed that “the window for stopping Donald Trump closed almost completely Tuesday night, leaving the demoralized anti-Trump forces with two weeks and no agreed-upon strategy for denying the New York billionaire the Republican presidential nomination.”

Balz notes that Rubio is running third in many states, and his boast of almost almost winning Virginia depends on support from the Beltway elite and their favorite suburbs, which isn’t a very impressive boast to the current Republican electorate. Cruz barely held on in his favored electoral terrain, and will have a tough time making headway in the Northern states.

Balz pronounces the whole affair “nightmarish” for the GOP establishment, which has been reduced to deciding whether it hates Trump or Cruz less. That’s going to put a smile on the faces of many Trump and Cruz supporters… and smiling supporters are energized enough to keep showing up at the polls.


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