Too early to start gaming this out? I don’t think so. News is breaking this afternoon that Cruz is opening 10 offices across Florida ahead of the big vote there, which is his attempt at a killshot on Rubio’s campaign. Florida is winner-take-all and Cruz has no chance to win there; he does have a chance to net delegates in other states that vote on March 15th, which means his decision to allocate resources to Florida must have some other purpose. That purpose: Guarantee Rubio’s defeat. By competing aggressively for conservative votes he can probably deny Rubio some of the late deciders he’d need to edge past Trump. Imagine how much “unity” the right’s going to feel on election night in Florida when Trump beats Rubio by four points with Cruz taking 17 percent of the vote. Trump would net 99 delegates, Rubio would probably drop out the next day, and then we’d be off on a long slog in which Trump would beat Cruz head to head in most of the remaining states, either clinching the nomination in the process or giving him something close enough to a majority of delegates that he couldn’t realistically be denied at the convention. I mean, good lord — even Lindsey Graham thinks the party owes it to Trump to nominate him if he gets to Cleveland with most of what he needs:
A brokered convention could happen if Trump fails to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot of delegate voting. Delegates are not bound to vote according to their states’ preference after the first ballot and could conceivably switch their vote to a candidate other than Trump.
“If he got two thirds of what he needs, which I think he’s well on his way to doing — for us to steal from him is not going to help the party,” Graham told Axelrod’s “Axe Files” podcast. “You can lose an election. We’ve lost an election before, but what I’m trying to do is focus on the day after we lose. He would leave — and he’d have a right to leave.”
In short, Trump defeating Rubio in Florida would set Trump on the path to the nomination by destroying his toughest competition in the blue states to come. Cruz is about to help him do that. Which means either Cruz thinks he’s got a real shot at beating Trump head to head, even in the northeast, midwest, and west, or Cruz is now running for VP.
And that’s not unrealistic. Right now, the VP slot is probably a choice between him and Kasich. Partly that depends on how Kasich does in Ohio: If Trump squashes him there, Kasich will have proved he has no constituency even in his home state. He’ll drop out and Trump can start looking around for some other experienced Republican governor whom the establishment is comfortable with. It could be Christie, although I think a Trump/Christie ticket would be too narrow geographically. If Kasich wins Ohio, though, then he’s a force to be reckoned with. With Rubio out of the race, Rubio’s centrist supporters might move to Kasich as an alternative to Trump. And if Kasich hangs around for awhile, that could be a very bad dynamic for Trump, with Kasich picking off votes on Trump’s left and Cruz suddenly cleaning up among conservatives on the right. Trump would be under pressure to make a deal with one of them and Kasich would obviously be a target. He’s just the sort of guy whom the GOP donor class would like to see Trump name as veep to reassure them that he won’t do anything nutty as president. Kasich’s from a key swing state, he’s midwestern, he’s got congressional and executive experience, and he does well in hypothetical match-ups with Hillary, suggesting he might move votes in the center. If Trump senses his main liability in the general election is being seen as too much of a loose cannon, putting Kasich on the ticket would be a way to signal that he’s prepared to cooperate with known quantities. And Kasich is saying all the right things lately that a would-be veep should say:
The Ohio governor said that Trump has yet to say or do anything that would disqualify him as the nominee.
“I mean it is always possible that somebody could do something that is so egregious that I would not want to be behind them, but let’s see,” Kasich said adding, “And I am not counting myself out on that.”
Donald “The Military Will Obey My Illegal Orders” Trump hasn’t said anything disqualifying, huh? Oh well. It’s not like Rubio or Cruz disagree with Kasich on that.
But what if alienating the establishment isn’t Trump’s main liability? What if #NeverTrump takes off? What if Trump starts piling up delegates this spring and polls begin to show that 15 percent of Republicans, mostly conservatives, simply won’t turn out for him this fall? What if, at this time next month, serious noise is being made about a conservative third-party effort? If Trump becomes convinced that there’ll be too many lost conservative votes in November for him to make up with votes in the middle, he’ll need to do something to pander to the right. And no pander would be stronger than naming Mr. Conservative, Ted Cruz, to be his number two. The GOP establishment won’t like the idea of a Trump/Cruz ticket, but you know what they like even less? A party shattered into several pieces, each of which is incapable separately of beating Hillary Clinton. If movement conservatives still matter to deciding presidents — and that’s an open question right now — Trump will have no choice but to turn to Cruz.
And Cruz, I think, would accept, although not until he felt sure he had no path to catching up to Trump in delegates. Some Twitter buddies on the right assure me that Cruz is far too principled to be the VP to a man whom he says would be a “disaster” for the country. Surely, they insist, Cruz would rather return to his familiar role in the Senate of leading a conservative insurgency. I don’t know. I think that sells short how calculating Cruz is. As the sitting VP, he’d be lined up for 2024. He could say he feels duty bound to take the position to provide a strong conservative influence over Trump, which would also be his path back to prominence if he and Trump lose in November. (I did my best to help unify the party, he’d say solemnly.) Being Trump’s VP would also earn him goodwill with Trumpist voters, which will come in handy if/when he runs for president again someday. If the GOP is morphing into a more populist, nationalist party, a man as ambitious as Cruz will need to build some cred with that side of it. Veep for Trump is his easiest route. The man’s a triangulator; triangulating between conservatives and Trumpists will come naturally to him.
Trump/Cruz is the ticket, argues Noah Millman:
Sure, Trump repeatedly called him “Lyin’ Ted” at last night’s debate. Sure, Trump has said Cruz would be a terrible president because nobody gets along with him. But pay no attention to that kind of talk. Only weeks before, Trump said he really liked Cruz — and Cruz said much the same about him.
Moreover, picking Cruz would do nothing to undermine Trump’s brand as an insurgent running against the idiots running the GOP — because Cruz is also an insurgent, albeit he prefers to call the GOP leadership traitors rather than idiots.
Finally, Trump really does have to worry about the possibility that establishment donors will bankroll a third-party candidacy by a movement conservative. The best way to forestall that option would be to pick the most uncompromising right-winger of all as his running mate. Conservative voters might bolt a Trump-led ticket for the Constitution Party or some other fringe figure. But Cruz could prevent those defections. Or so he’d claim.
Cruz would be Trump’s liaison to the right, the man who can drag #NeverTrumpers grudgingly back into the tent — or at least hold down their numbers so that they barely matter outside of conservative media. And as I say, I think establishmentarians would come around to him. Remember, Lindsey Graham — Lindsey Graham! — actually suggested on TV the other day that the party might need to rally around Cruz to avert a Trump nomination. If that can’t be averted, the next best option becomes rallying around Cruz to prevent a total party crack-up. Cruz might be the one guy left who can deliver that as veep. And hey, #NeverTrumpers: If you’re eager to ensure that Trump’s VP is a strong conservative, you have every incentive to be as loud as you can for as long as you can. The more real it seems that the right is about to walk, the more pressure Trump will face to give you Cruz or someone like him.
Exit question via Ben Shapiro: What about … Jim Webb as a VP to Trump? That’s a fascinating possibility given their shared appeal to the white, working-class, Jacksonian demographic that’s fueling Trumpmania. A fusion ticket with a Democrat as number two would also give Trump a strong argument against Hillary that not only does he represent a break from politics as usual, he has respected members of her own party choosing him over her as the superior option in November. My main knock on Trump/Webb, though, is that it amplifies Trump’s strengths without doing much about his weaknesses. How does Webb help him with jittery Republican establishmentarians or rock-ribbed conservatives? Webb makes sense only if Trump thinks there are so many votes up for grabs in the center of the electorate that he can jettison the right entirely. Who knows? Maybe he can.