So, looks like I got another prediction wrong. I wrote back in December that if and when Trump lost, he would claim that the vote was rigged. Incorrect. As it turns out, he ended up claiming that Cruz cheated.
This is the single dumbest thing he’s done since he got into the race, including his decision to skip the Fox debate — which even he thinks might have hurt him.
Let’s go in reverse order. Cruz comparing ObamaCare to “TrumpCare” is a garden-variety political attack based on Trump talking about universal health care and getting government to pay for it. Marco Rubio insists every day that he doesn’t support “amnesty,” yet his critics, me included, attack him as the amnesty candidate relentlessly based on the substance of his proposals. That’s politics. The “Voter Violation” mailer that Trump refers to was indeed a sleazy, aggressive bit of pressuring by Cruz, but Cruz didn’t pioneer it and it’s certainly not illegal. (The reason candidates use it, in fact, is because it works.) Given the heat he took for it online, even among some conservatives, it’s an open question whether the mailer ended up costing Cruz more votes than it won him.
As for Cruz playing dirty tricks on Ben Carson on caucus night, Cruz apologized yesterday for what he claimed was an innocent mistake. When CNN tweeted out that Carson was headed home to Florida after Iowa instead of on to New Hampshire and South Carolina, Team Cruz told its precinct captains that “Dr. Ben Carson is taking time off from the campaign trail after Iowa and making a big announcement next week” and that they should encourage Carson supporters to caucus for Cruz. Team Cruz wasn’t the only one to draw the mistaken impression that Carson was quitting from CNN’s bulletin. Various other people did too. When Team Carson clarified that he wasn’t quitting the race, Cruz’s staff didn’t relay that information to the captains. The question: Could that erroneous impression have led so many Carson fans to switch to Cruz at that last minute that it denied Trump his rightful victory?
Well, for starters, Carson actually outperformed his final polling average, finishing with 9.3 percent of the vote after being predicted to finish with 7.7 percent. If there had been a mass exodus to Cruz, you’d expect him to have underperformed unless Carson was on track to finish way, way better than anyone expected. The final margin between Cruz and Trump was a bit more than 6,000 votes; Carson ended up with 17,000+ votes, meaning that roughly a quarter of his supporters would have had to defect at the last minute based on the erroneous news from CNN, which Team Carson rapidly corrected — and every last one of those defectors would have had to go to Cruz. Realistically, though, defecting Carsonites would have split between Cruz, Trump, and Rubio, meaning that an even higher percentage of his total support would have had to break away at the last second to create that 6,000-vote margin for Cruz. Does anyone think the CNN bulletin instantly caused, say, 50 percent of Carson fans to dump him? Trump blithely insists in his tweet that “many people” switched from Carson to Cruz. Where’s the evidence?
And another thing, via Ben Shapiro: If Cruz performed better than expected because he cheated, how do we explain Carson performing better than expected and Rubio performing much better than expected? Did they cheat too? One of the weirdest things about Trump’s outburst this morning on Twitter about being cheated is that he’s already cycled through various more plausible explanations for his loss. As a Twitter buddy noted, on caucus night he was gracious in his concession speech. The next day he retweeted a fan who said losing Iowa was meaningless, which isn’t quite true but will look pretty good if Trump romps to victory in New Hampshire. Then, last night, he admitted that his ground game in Iowa wasn’t as good as it should have been, which is almost certainly the real reason why he lost. And now, as if he’s going through some sort of sore-loser version of Kubler-Ross, he’s reached the stage where he insists that Trump can only be defeated through nefarious means. Why he would want to do this when he’s 20 points ahead in NH and late deciders are wondering whether they can trust him to be steady and even-tempered as president, I can’t imagine. Philip Klein thinks he’s imploding in real time:
Every other time Trump said something controversial, or insulted an opponent, he was doing so from a position of strength. He looked like the alpha male toying with his pathetic oppnents. His whole brand is based on the idea that he’s a “winner” — being not just a loser, but a “sore loser,” is greatly damaging.
In this case, Cruz pulled off an impressive win in Iowa. Trump validated that win by giving a gracious — for him — concession speech, even congratulating Cruz. But now, he has unleashed a temper tantrum…
It’s true that many of Trump supporters are so loyal, that as Trump joked, he could shoot somebody and they’d still support him. The problem Trump faces is that to win the nomination, he’ll have to win over a lot of people who don’t currently support him. And there are already indications that he’s having trouble doing this.
He sounds like a baby, which is the opposite of how he should be trying to sound this week. One theory popular on social media as I write this is that Trump is setting up the “fraud” in Iowa as his excuse to drop out of the race and run as an independent, which makes lots of sense … until you remember, as Ed Morrissey did, that he’s already on the Republican ballot in various states and “sore-loser laws” bar him from appearing later as an indie. Another possible explanation is that he’s trying to galvanize Trump fans in New Hampshire to turn out by giving them a stark example of the system being rigged against them, but hardcore Trump fans are already likely to turn out. What he needs, as Klein notes, is to try to hold Rubio’s and Cruz’s margins down among late deciders. Whining will make that harder, not easier. Even as a tactical matter it makes no sense: Trump should be focused this week on stopping Rubio, the man most likely to finish second in New Hampshire and very likely a more formidable opponent for Trump in a two-man race once establishment money is solidly behind him. Instead he’s attacking Cruz with sour grapes. Does he want Rubio to finish far ahead of Cruz?
The only way I can make sense of this is to think the answer to that question is yes, and that Trump is trying to engineer a three-man race in South Carolina and beyond. If so, that means that even he doesn’t think he can win a two-man contest with anyone, including Cruz. That’s an enormous bet he’s making, though: If he lays off Rubio this week and Rubio comes all the way back to win New Hampshire, Trump will be on life support. One more loss in South Carolina to either Cruz or Rubio and he’ll be written off. If I were him, I’d nuke Rubio and then pivot back to Cruz before SC. I don’t know what he’s doing here, apart from pure ego preservation.