Cruz’s path to defeat before the convention is simple: Lose Indiana, lose California decisively, and lose the war for Pennsylvania’s 54 unbound delegates. Within the past 24 hours, there’s new evidence that we’re on track for all three. I covered the battle for Pennsylvania last night and noted that some private polls of Indiana have the race there tight, with Trump possibly out to a small lead, but here’s the first solid evidence from a public poll that that state is tilting against Cruz.

To think, after all the time we’ve spent obsessing over delegates, they’re probably not going to matter after all.

The WTHR/HPI Indiana Poll has Trump with a 6-point lead over his closest challenger Ted Cruz. The poll indicates a record turnout will favor Trump over the other candidates…

Donald Trump 37%
Ted Cruz 31%
John Kasich 22%

When you drill down into the numbers into core Republicans, which we will do for you tonight on Eyewitness News, it makes this race a virtual tie between Trump and Cruz.

That’s as much detail as they’re willing to provide right now, although Howey Politics (which sponsored the poll) has another data point: Although Trump is much less popular among the general electorate than Cruz is (33/61 versus 38/44), he’s actually slightly more popular than Cruz among Indiana’s Republicans, pulling a 56/30 favorable rating versus 54/38 for Cruz. The fact that the race is a “virtual tie” among “core Republicans” is encouraging, but Indiana has an open primary. It won’t just be “core Republicans” voting. And the more likely it looks that Trump might surprise Cruz there, all but crushing the last hope of #NeverTrumpers, the more incentive pro-Trump Democrats and independents will have to re-register as Republicans and support their guy. The question is what Kasich fans and the 10 percent of undecideds do. They probably break towards Cruz, but how strongly? Expect Team Cruz to go all out next week with messaging in Indiana about how a vote for Cruz is effectively a vote for Kasich insofar as Trump must lose the state, as badly as possible, to preserve the likelihood of a contested convention. If you’re clinging to the pipe dream where Kasich is nominated in Cleveland, you have every reason to vote in Indiana for the guy who’s closest to Trump in the polls. That’s Cruz.

But never mind that. Even a Trump victory in Indiana could be neutralized by a poor performance in California. California, after all, has a massive haul of 172 delegates at stake, most of them awarded by district. Trump will enter that primary with somewhere between 1,050 and 1,150 delegates already in the bank, meaning that a strong performance — especially if it’s consistently strong across the state’s various regions — could lock up the nomination while a weak one could leave him crippled on the first ballot. The forecast from this new poll of California by Capitol Weekly: Strong across various regions. Gulp.

cw

This was an online poll, which typically raises doubts among experts, but at least one has said it seems “serious” and asked for a closer look at its methodology. As for the numbers, do note that while California’s system for awarding delegates is similar to New York’s — winner-take-all by district, plus a small bonus for the statewide winner — they differ in one crucial respect. In New York, to win all three of a district’s delegates, the winner needed to pull 50 percent of the vote or higher. If he failed, he’d get two delegates and the second-place finisher would get one. In New York, in other words, the winner’s share of the vote mattered a lot. California, however, has no 50 percent threshold. Trump could get 34 percent in a district versus 33 apiece for Cruz and Kasich and he still gets all three delegates there. That is to say, if you’re looking at those numbers above and feeling cheered by the fact that Trump is well below 50 nearly everywhere, don’t be. It’s almost completely irrelevant.

Why “almost”? Because: If Trump is below 50, Cruz and Kasich could conceivably join forces strategically and have one or the other of them top 50 percent district by district. In a district where Kasich is polling in second place, all Cruz voters should support Kasich. Where Cruz is polling second, all Kasich voters support Cruz. That’s the only way, given these numbers, to create any real threat to Trump in California. The alternative, of course, is for Kasich to drop out, leaving all of his voters to unify behind Cruz. But that doesn’t work: Capitol Weekly polled that hypothetical race and found that, while Kasich’s voters do break two to one for Cruz with him out of the race, Trump still leads 47/37. Cruz actually needs Kasich to stay in at this point and hold onto any Kasich voters who have Trump as their second point. Strategic voting is his only hope. And just to make things worse, the 41/23/21 spread that Capitol Weekly finds statewide between Trump, Cruz, and Kasich might be even worse on election day given how new Republican registrants in California are splitting. They divide 53/21/15. If they show up for Trump, in other words, it could be a rout. If it is, Trump will be right on the cusp of 1,237 if not past that mark. Even if he’s short, he’ll be close enough to sway a few unbound delegates in Cleveland over to his side. And frankly, even if he falls well short because Cruz and Kasich somehow skillfully convince their voters in California to vote strategically, how will delegates at the convention respond to the idea of making Cruz the nominee after he was forced to collude with another candidate in the country’s biggest state just to force a vote on the first ballot? Cruz will need a lot of luck the rest of the way, starting in Indiana.