A noteworthy poll by the Free Beacon and not just because it shows Cruz out to his biggest lead yet in Wisconsin. I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that the state is a near must-win for him. He needs to give demoralized anti-Trumpers some hope that he has a shot of stopping Trump from reaching 1,237 delegates before the convention, especially with Trump’s home state of New York looming on April 19th, and cleaning up in a bluish midwestern state with an open primary might do it. If Cruz wants to rally the troops for the final two-month push to Cleveland, win there. If he doesn’t, you may see a dam break among establishment Republicans calling for him and Kasich to drop out and for the party to rally, however reluctantly, behind Trump as nominee.
As I say, though, that’s not the only interesting part of the poll. This bit from the crosstabs caught my eye:
By no means does Cruz have a “good chance” to beat Hillary this fall (on the contrary) but head-to-head polls do consistently show that he has a better chance than Trump does, and as we get closer to the convention electability may matter more to Republican primary voters than it has thus far. Dig into the crosstabs and compare the number of Trump fans who’d switch to Cruz for electability reasons to the number who’d switch to him for policy reasons. For instance, when you ask Trump fans whether they’d switch if they were convinced Trump wouldn’t repeal ObamaCare but Cruz would, just 22.7 percent say yes. What about if they were convinced Trump wouldn’t appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court but Cruz would? In that case, 26 percent say yes. How about if they were convinced that Cruz would do more in office to “shake up the system” than Trump would, which of course is the core appeal of Trump’s campaign? Surprisingly, a mere 22.7 percent say they’d switch. All of those numbers pale in comparison to the 37.6 percent of Trumpers who’d ditch him if they thought he couldn’t beat Hillary but Cruz could.
That’s significant because you’re starting to see more news coverage lately of just how badly Trump tends to do head-to-head with Clinton, especially among women. It’s a perfectly natural thing for a low-information voter to watch Trump dominating in primary polls, hear Trump talking constantly about his dominance of primary polls, and conclude that he’s certainly the party’s best chance against Hillary. Some Trump supporters may back him mainly for that reason. If that illusion is shattered, though, the fallout is unpredictable. If Trump looks like a sure loser in the fall, or a surer loser than Cruz at any rate, you might see some small but significant break towards Cruz in later-voting states that could be the difference between Trump clinching 1,237 or not. And if he doesn’t clinch before the first ballot, his perceived unelectability is sure to weigh heavily on delegates in Cleveland. All of which is to say, if Cruz wants to hurt Trump going forward, he may be better off ditching the reminders that Trump’s not a conservative and engaging Trump on one of his favorite subjects — the polls. Convince Republican voters that Trump’s a zombie candidate with no hope in a general election and they might decide he’s not worth a gamble. It’s the “Wizard of Oz” effect in action: Once some softer Trump supporters know that the great and powerful Trump isn’t an unstoppable force in November, some will never see him the same way again.
Just to drive the point home, here’s how Wisconsin Republicans answer when asked what their top priority is in a nominee. This is the year of smashing the establishment, right? Well, not for everyone:
Electability should be a recurring theme for Cruz the rest of the way, notwithstanding the fact that electability has always been one of the core arguments against him too. One other interesting data point from the poll, unrelated to the above: To the tune of 69/28, Wisconsin Republicans say they’d support letting illegals have a path to citizenship provided they learn English, pay back taxes, and wait a period of years. That’s not supposed to happen in the Year of Trump, when populist opposition to amnesty is supposedly everything, but pro-amnesty results have showed up in plenty of GOP primary exit polls thus far. That won’t help Cruz, obviously, but it’s another reminder that Republican priorities aren’t always what the conventional wisdom claims they are.