News & Insights

Is Cruz crazy? Or just trying to pick his opponent? Do the math.

Of the many insults hurled at Sen. Ted Cruz, he has perhaps never been accused of acting contrary to his self-interest. So why is Cruz spending money in Florida, a state he knows he cannot win?

Cruz’s broadside against fellow Sen. Marco Rubio in the latter’s home state, a state where all of the 99 delegates go to the statewide winner and where all polling shows the Texan in deep third place, is driven by a desire to eliminate Rubio as an option for Republican delegates when they convene in Cleveland in July.

Thus far, media analysts have missed that nuance, buying the Cruz machismo that he’s looking for the so-called kill shot – denying Rubio the votes he needs to beat Donald Trump in Florida and thereby, the theory goes, forcing the Floridian out of the race and creating a two-man death match between Trump and Cruz.

Sounds strategic, right? It’s not that simple.

The problem with this theory is that Cruz takes incredible risk in a two-man race. That’s the only kind of race that gives Trump the possibility of securing the 1,237 delegates he needs for a first-ballot victory. I’ll explain the math behind that assertion below, but first let’s go over a structural truth about this race that has not changed.

As this race began to take shape in the winter, I postulated that the best way to understand its dynamic was to understand each man’s obstacle. Bush had to beat Rubio. Rubio has to beat Cruz. Cruz has to beat Trump. And Trump has to beat 50. Successful strategy for each man is to beat his personal “opponent” and deny his opponent the ability to overcome his own obstacle in turn. In Cruz’s case, that means denying Trump 50 percent is as important as him beating Trump head-on.

For Cruz’s anti-Rubio gambit in Florida to make sense, there has to be a mathematical path for the Texan to deny Trump his 1,237 during the 19 contests that remain after March 15th, right? You do the math.

That second half of the primary calendar will account for 41% of the delegates to the GOP convention, but Trump will presumably enter that phase of the campaign with a healthy lead over Cruz. The political aggregator Nate Silver estimates that Trump has 391 delegates and Cruz 304 going into today’s contests in Mississippi, Michigan, Hawaii, and Idaho. Trump will win two of today’s contests at a minimum, and widen his delegate lead somewhat.

If Cruz and Trump both got their professed wish and a two-man race, they’d then fight on terrain not necessarily favorable to Cruz, whose victories have been in what might be called Greater Texas and in states that hold caucuses more than primaries. Cruz has long promised his winning coalition was reliant on southern evangelical voters – but there are none of those left after March 15, with eight contests in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, three on the West Coast, four in the Rockies, and only four in the Midwest.

Only six of those races are guaranteed to be “winner take all delegates” affairs, with the rest some sort of proportional or congressional district division. The largest delegate hauls at stake in winner-take-all races would be New Jersey (51 delegates) and Arizona (58 delegates), both of which would seem to favor Trump over Cruz.

In a two-man race, New York and Connecticut would also become de facto winner-take-all contests because they have triggers by which any candidate getting 50% of the vote gets all delegates. In a Trump-Cruz contest, both those states, with a combined total of 123 delegates, will also favor Trump.

If you add Trump’s existing 391 delegates, plus the 99 that Cruz is trying to hand him in Florida, plus Arizona, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, he gets to 722. Add in the 60-plus delegates I expect him to win tonight (March 8), and the 50-plus delegates he’s likely to get next Tuesday in Illinois and Missouri, and Trump can be at 832 total.

That means he needs 405 delegates in the remaining states, most of which will award delegates on a basis more widely distributed than just to the statewide winner. Can, in a two-way race, Trump win 55% of the delegates, combined, in a pool of states that includes Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Utah, Rhode Island, Nebraska, South Dakota, California, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Montana? It’s possible.

Cruz’s chief strategist Jeff Roe is no dummy – he knows this math. And he knows that while crossing the 50% threshold is hard for Trump, it’s incredibly risky to bet your entire prospect on holding Trump under 55% in states that are not a perfect match for your own candidate.

Conversely, if Rubio were to win Florida’s 99 delegates, and continue to glean reasonable shares all through the spring in other states, holding Trump under 1,237 becomes almost automatic. Rubio has done well in suburban areas and would be formidable in Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and other states that otherwise will lean to Trump in a two-way against Cruz.

Given those two options, why would Roe, and Cruz, take the riskier path?

I can only come up with one possibility: they’re counting on John Kasich to do the job instead.

When you hear Cruz say he eschews the idea of a contested convention, ask him why he’s attacking in Florida and not Ohio. It’s not the idea of a convention contest Cruz is against; it’s who he’d have to beat there.