Ted Cruz had a good day Saturday. The Texas senator won the Kansas and Maine caucuses outright, and he beat Donald Trump among election-day voters in the Louisiana primary—though he still lost to Trump once early-voting ballots were tallied, and Trump won the Kentucky caucuses as well. Cruz finished the day having won more delegates than Trump, but equally important for establishing the Texas senator as Trump’s only viable rival was the disastrous performance of Marco Rubio, who placed a distant third in Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas and fell behind John Kasich for fourth place in Maine.
Republican consultants and conservative journalists on Twitter ascribed Trump’s defeats to several implausible causes, most dubious of all being Trump’s decision to skip CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. The notion voters in Kansas or Maine could care the slightest bit about this is a sign of how out-of-touch the center-right commentariat has become. Another of its favorite explanations for Trump’s weakening was the #neverTrump hashtag campaign on Twitter. More credibly, the results of Saturday’s contests might have to do with the smaller, more conservative, more loyally Republican electorate in these four closed primaries and caucuses. Trump’s poor performance in the Fox News debate the previous Thursday, where he was grilled by moderator Megyn Kelly, also hardly helped him in the contests three days later.
But what about Rubio? Have his voters deserted him for Cruz as the candidate most likely to stop Trump? Perhaps in part, but Cruz has been strong in caucuses all along—he did, after all, win the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses. Cruz does well in caucuses because he speaks to the most ideologically committed bloc within the Republican Party, the conservative activists. And they, in turn, are highly effective organizers—though their raw numbers are not so great as to prevail in open primaries. Rubio, by contrast, has been a creature not of the grassroots conservative activist base but of the donor class and intelligentsia in Washington, D.C. The GOP is split not two ways, but three: between populists who mix right-wing and moderate positions, in defiance both of political correctness and conservative orthodoxy; and conservative activists who want a reliable ideologue—Cruz—regardless of his lack of charm; and finally a narrow elite of suburban Republicans, high-dollar donors and conservative verbalists who pride themselves on their own sophistication. Trump is the candidate of the populists, Cruz that of the conservative activists, and Rubio that of an embarrassed elite that wishes to be both right-wing and progressive at the same time.
That elite is proving to be far too slender a base to sustain a presidential campaign, and Rubio’s prospects even for winning his home state of Florida on March 15 are dim. Having vanquished Jeb Bush in the fight to be the Republican elites standard-bearer in this election, Rubio is learning a painful lesson about just what that prize is worth. Even before Saturday’s humiliations, the reality had begun to dawn on Rubio’s supporters that he has no plausible path to the nomination: he would have to win roughly two-thirds of all remaining delegates.
Yet if Trump and Cruz continue to split their winnings as they have been doing since Super Tuesday, neither of them may reach the necessary 1,237 delegates to win the nomination cleanly, either. Should Rubio actually win Florida, or John Kasich his home state of Ohio—or indeed Michigan, where some polls have him surging—Trump’s hopes for the nomination may suffer the death of a thousand cuts. As the race gets tougher for Trump, the window for a contested convention widens.
That might console the #neverTrump elites—until they stop to think about just what might be in store at Cleveland, where Trump and Cruz together will command a majority of delegates. Cruz is personally disliked by much of the party elite, which has come to resent his grandstanding ways in the Senate, while Trump is actively hated and feared. Yet if both of them were to be denied the nomination or some significant consolation prize—and what could that be?—by the party’s D.C. leadership class, there would be hell to pay in the long run.
The convention would go down in history as the GOP’s ultimate betrayal of its own voters. Already a sense of powerlessness is the strongest indicator of support for Trump, according to an analysis by the Rand Corporation, which found that more of his supporters agree or strongly agree with the statement “people like me don't have any say about what the government does.” Should Cruz voters come to feel similarly disempowered by the Republican elite, following a brutal convention, they will become further fodder for populists in Trump’s vein in the future. And Trump’s own voters, already alienated, could hardly be expected to forgive the Republican Party for overruling their delegate plurality. The party has seen several rebellions in recent years, whose victims have included former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already reviled by much of the GOP base, and Paul Ryan was reluctant to succeed Boehner as speaker of the House for fear that the GOP had become unmanageable. They could both suffer the consequences of an enraged conservative and populist base.
The Republican Party faces dissension of a kind not seen in American politics since the Democratic Party’s 1972 or 1968 upheavals. If Trump is the nominee, which he will be if he wins Ohio and Florida on March 15, neoconservatives and other professional-class Republicans will abandon the party. If Cruz is the nominee, the party’s elite may ride out a loss in November, at the cost of accepting Senator Cruz as an elevated figure among the party faithful—a deeply distasteful prospect for those who know Cruz. And if the men and women who consider themselves the enlightened cosmopolitans of the GOP leadership dare to deprive both Cruz and Trump of the nominee, they may soon come to sharply regret the price of victory. A candidate selected in July would, with an almost certainly deeply divided party behind him, have a mere four months in which to fight a campaign against Hillary Clinton. If she can stave off her email scandal that long, it’s hard to see how she could lose.
Cruz comes out ahead no matter what happens. If he wins the nomination and loses the general election, he merely returns to the Senate with an elevated profile among his conservative admirers. If he falls short of challenging Trump for the nominations, the conservative activists who find Trump’s unorthodox ideology unacceptable will still be grateful to Cruz for having fought the good fight. And if the party elite prevents Cruz from being the nominee, even if he has by far the most delegates after Trump, then Cruz will be in a position in the future to harness resentment against the party leadership as effectively as Trump has done so in this cycle: he’ll not only be the conservatives’ hero, he’ll be their martyr.
For all this, Republican establishment ultimately has only itself to blame, for putting its stock in two candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who could not prevail against even figures as bizarre as Trump and despised as Cruz.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon.