Ted Cruz is now the clearest, best chance Republicans have to stop Donald Trump.
It’s the scenario the increasingly nervous stop-Trump movement has been aching to see. Finally, they get the chance to go almost head to head against the billionaire businessman with Cruz. While not their ideal choice, he does bring a committed, enthusiastic conservative army along with plenty of campaign cash.
Tuesday helped clear the field.
Trump won in Illinois and North Carolina and his big Florida victory ended Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio won his home state, and a campaign memo argued that he’s well-positioned to pick up Rubio support. But he’s shown little strength elsewhere, needs campaign money and is far behind in the delegate count. Cruz was neck and neck with Trump in early returns from Missouri.
Cruz does face a difficult task. The senator from Texas will need to win about 80 percent of the remaining GOP delegates to get the 1,237 needed for nomination. Trump, who won all 99 Florida delegates Tuesday and was likely to win many more, needs to get only about 60 percent.
Still, Cruz has three reasons for glimmers of optimism:
He’s competitive one-on-one against Trump and Clinton
Exit polls in North Carolina and Missouri on Tuesday suggested Cruz would top Trump in a one-on-one match. Far more Republicans in those states and in national surveys saw Cruz as more honest and trustworthy and having the right experience than Trump.
An ABC News-Washington Post survey this month found Cruz would beat Trump head to head among Republicans by 13 percentage points. And Cruz is well-positioned to pick up Rubio supporters – 47 percent back Cruz as a second choice, well ahead of the 27 percent who picked Kasich, according to Morning Consult poll this week.
62 percent of Missouri Republicans said Cruz was honest and trustworthy. 64 percent saw Kasich that way, and 48 percent said Trump had those qualities, according to network exit polls.
In a general election matchup, Cruz and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton are in a virtual tie in the latest RealClearPolitics average, an important Cruz talking point. But Trump trails Clinton by about 6 points. Kasich actually does better than any Republican, up an average of 7.4 percentage points over the former secretary of state.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, who trails Clinton in the Democratic race, runs stronger against all three Republicans.
Different GOP delegate allocation rules could help
Cruz has quietly piled up delegates by picking them up in pieces with strong if not winning showings. Starting with Tuesday’s votes in Florida and Ohio, states have the power to award all their delegates to the winner.
Cruz tends to do well in more rural and Western states – he’s won in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, Maine, Oklahoma and his home state of Texas. The coming states of Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota all are winner-take-all for their delegates.
He won’t be favored to win the upcoming Northeastern and Pacific Coast states. But not all are winner-take-all and he can gain delegates with more strong finishes.
The Stop-Trump movement is desperate for a viable alternative
The chaos at Trump’s recent rallies has hardened the anti-Trump forces more than ever, elevating their fear that his candidacy could hurt and embarrass the Republican brand.
If Cruz is seen as having the only realistic chance to block Trump, chances are GOP establishment figures and voters will rally around him. Nearly half the North Carolina Republicans who made up their minds in the last few days voted for Cruz on Tuesday, while 28 percent chose Trump. Trump also faltered in the closing days in Ohio, where Kasich topped him among late deciders, 59 to 25 percent.
Of those deciding in Illinois in the last few days, 38 percent went for Cruz, 30 percent for Trump and 25 percent for Kasich.
Cruz retains durable support among staunch conservatives. In North Carolina, where 36 percent of GOP voters regard themselves as very conservative, network exit polls showed him ahead of Trump by 17 points. He topped Trump by 18 in Illinois and by 22 in Missouri among the same groups.
There will be talk of establishment types warming to Kasich in the days ahead. But his best chance for the nomination appears to be a contested convention. He’s said he needs to at least win Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut later this spring and their 150 delegates to even be viable.
He told CNN on Tuesday that more than 1,000 delegates are yet to be selected, and “We’ve only been paid attention to the last two or three weeks.”
“No candidate will win 1,237 delegates,” said the memo from John Weaver, the Kasich campaign’s chief strategist. “With a narrowing field, Gov. Kasich is the candidate best positioned to go toe-to-toe in the remaining states.”
Trouble is, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a vocal Trump backer, and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll last month had Trump far out in front in that state. Trump also has a big lead in recent Pennsylvania surveys.
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Trump, meanwhile, is poised to keep marching toward a bigger lead in delegates. The next big state to vote is Wisconsin on April 5, with 42 delegates. Then it’s New York on April 19, with 95 delegates at stake. It’s Trump’s home state, and a Siena Research Institute poll earlier this month found Trump with a huge lead while Cruz ran fourth.
Trump’s opponents’ best chance might be the final day of voting, June 7. Five states with 303 delegates vote that day, including Cruz-friendly Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico, plus New Jersey and California.
He’s still got a hard road ahead. Next to the daunting math, the opponents face the same obstacle that has flummoxed anti-Trump forces all year: Nothing stops him. Not insults about Mexicans, not offending Muslims. And most recently, not the uproars at his rallies.
But there’s still one test Trump hasn’t faced yet, let alone survived: A one-on-one match against a well-funded, savvy opponent.