Politics

Will Ted Cruz (and Maybe John Kasich) Fight or Surrender?

It is tragic to be bamboozled by polls.  

Pity Mike Bloomberg, who rejected a third-party campaign partly because the polls convinced him that there was no chance of getting his dream matchup of Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump.  

Columnists-Bug-Web-SHAPIRO The polling failure in Michigan was equivalent to the track record of stock touts peddling Lehman Brothers shares just before the 2008 crash. Bernie's Michigan breakthrough was the biggest primary upset since ... columnist furrows brow, stares into space ... maybe 1984 when Gary Hart came out of nowhere to win New Hampshire.  

Polls are no excuse for the smugly over-confident -- and wrong -- media predictions. We should have all seen Sanders' Michigan mayhem coming. Michigan is, after all, a Rust-Belt state where Wall Street is the villain and trade the mantra. If Bernie couldn't make it here, where could he make it?  

But nobody, to my knowledge, dissented from the press pack certainty that Clinton had Michigan clinched. That is the dirty secret of political journalism -- reporters never want to go too far out on a limb for fear of being ridiculed as a shill for a candidate.  

Looking at the Michigan exit polls, a single number jumps out: 34 percent. That was the share of the African-American vote that went to Sanders, a senator from one of the whitest states in the union. In contrast, the 74-year-old Vermont lawmaker won only 14 percent of black voters in South Carolina on Feb. 27 -- the primary that removed most doubts about the certainty of a Clinton crowning at the Philadelphia Convention.  

Despite it all, Hillary increased her daunting delegate lead on Tuesday night because of a jaw-dropping 5-to-1 victory margin in the Mississippi primary and the closeness of the Michigan verdict. Clinton has a lead of more than 200 delegates over Sanders even before the pro-Hillary superdelegates (elected officials and party leaders) are factored in.  

That is why it would take a massive rebellion in the later primaries -- or a stunning new Clinton scandal -- to halt her relentless march to the nomination.  

The Clinton forces understand the power of arithmetic and the Democratic rules for apportioning delegates. Gone are the days when Mark Penn, Hillary's top strategist in 2008, mistakenly believed that the California primary was winner-take-all. "The one thing that Hillary's campaign gets is that this race is about delegates -- and not states," said Denver-based political consultant Rick Ridder. "That's a big difference from 2008."  

But it is easy for the uninitiated to be beguiled by the seductiveness of color-coded television maps divvying up the states based on which candidate won each primary or caucus. Memories of the November election -- which is entirely based on states rather than votes -- also confuse popular understanding of the nomination race.  

OK, the prior paragraph may strike some as the Sesame Street version of political analysis. But think of the Republican results on Tuesday . It didn't really matter, except in symbolic terms, that Donald Trump won three out of four states, losing only the Idaho caucuses to Ted Cruz. The only thing that should count is that Trump won slightly fewer than half the 150 delegates at stake.  

Put another way (warning: contrarian interpretation ahead), Trump ended up a hair further from a convention majority than he was before Tuesday's  delegate contests.  

Of course, it wasn't reported that way because the headlines and the maps all highlighted Trump winning Michigan. But in delegate terms (because both Cruz and John Kasich hung in there) Trump only won 25 of 59 delegates at stake in the first primary in a major industrial state.  

What makes this important -- especially if Kasich wins next Tuesday's Ohio primary -- is the most likely scenario at the end of the primaries: Trump would be holding a delegate lead, but still be short of the 1,237 needed for nomination in Cleveland.  

In that case, would the remaining candidates (certainly Cruz and maybe Kasich) fight or surrender?  

There are precedents on both sides of the equation. In 2008, Hillary folded her hand in the name of party unity. But in 1976, Ronald Reagan took the fight to the convention floor even though he was a 117 votes behind Jerry Ford.  

I asked Cruz the fight-or-surrender question at a midnight press conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., as Monday night bled into Tuesday morning. Just to get the Texas senator's attention, I wrapped the question around the sainted name of Ronald Reagan.  

"I don't think we're going to have a brokered convention," Cruz insisted before adding, "I will say this to those in Washington who envision a deadlock of delegates and suddenly some outside candidate drops in on a parachute to save the Washington Establishment -- that is a pipe dream. It is never going to happen."  

Cruz was just getting warmed up: "And, if it did -- if the Washington deal-makers tried to foist on the American people a candidate who has not been chosen by the voters -- I think the result would be an outright revolt."  

That is Cruz's dark nightmare, the price he would end up paying for being perhaps the most hated man in the Senate. What Cruz fears most is party leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell snatching away a nomination that is rightly his.  

So Cruz -- who is likely to be trailing Trump when the delegate contests are over -- is stuck with a public belief in the sanctity of the primaries. As Cruz put it, "Now, the way I believe to beat Donald Trump is to beat him at the ballot box by getting 1,237 delegates."  

Although you might not be able to tell from the slavish TV coverage, Trump has not won the nomination yet -- or even come close. The same pundits who are insisting that it is in the monogrammed bag for Trump are the same ones who were confidently predicting last spring that the GOP had to nominate Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio.  

That is why the fight-or-surrender question -- the one that Ted Cruz tried to wave off -- may end up representing the biggest choice that the Republican Party has made since it picked Dwight Eisenhower over Robert Taft at the 1952 Convention.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is covering his 10th presidential race. A fellow at the Brennan Center at NYU, he is lecturer in political science at Yale and is the author of the forthcoming in June ‘Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.’ Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro .

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