Although there are many more important dates during the remaining three months of the primary schedule, two stand out as pivotal and ultimately decisive. The first is tomorrow and will go a long way towards defining the importance of the second.
If you take the view that Donald Trump’s bid for the nomination is unstoppable, June 7th will be no more than a coronation. In this analysis, he’ll dominate tomorrow’s five races, add further wins in Arizona, Wisconsin and then the North-East. By June 7th, when 303 delegates are in play, he’ll need a good night to get past the key 1237 threshold but even without passing it, Trump’s big lead would render any establishment plots to stop him as illegitimate and pointless.
If like me, you take the alternative view, then the key task is making sure somebody stays within range of Trump. Given his terrible unfavourable ratings, not to mention a sense that his anarchic campaign is growing out of control and that recent results suggest his ceiling with GOP voters has been reached, everything could change on June 7th.
The key point is, by that stage, the choice will either be head-to-head, or effectively head-to-head. It will be clear to anyone wanting to stop Trump precisely who they have to vote for. Whereas this week is the first time that has been the case.
It barely needs repeating that the opposition to Trump has been inept, anarchic and damaging. The co-ordinated attacks on the front-runner only really started at the Texas debate a fortnight ago. Tomorrow there is still the realistic prospect of Trump being able to win Illinois on 35%, while the other three carve each other up.
However there has been a change in tone and tactics. Marco Rubio’s campaign explicitly advised their supporters in Ohio to vote for John Kasich, because he is best placed to beat Trump. Rubio is apparently making little effort in Missouri – Ted Cruz’s key target. Both Rubio and Kasich failed to equivocally state they would support Trump as the nominee. Meanwhile, Cruz backers belatedly realised that fighting Florida was futile and counter-productive.
So there does appear to be a belated meeting of minds and, after Tuesday, those tactical operations will become clearer. My view, as the market implies, is that Rubio will lose his home state of Florida and drop out. If he were to pull off a shock, that would be a hammer blow to Trump and the whole race would then need re-assessing.
Rubio losing Florida makes Ohio a must-win for Kasich, to stop Trump pulling away. Here, I again think the market is probably right to support the state Governor. Illinois is getting close, with Cruz looking set to at least take a stack of delegates, if not win. If Cruz wins Missouri, that would keep him in touch with the front-runner.
In short, there’s enough there for the Never Trumpers to achieve their first target – stop Trump running away with it. If achieving that, the next step is to not only keep him below 1237, but well below the threshold.
Again this is not impossible, especially with that valuable final round of states. If Rubio exits, there will be well over 300 unbound delegates, free to jump behind an alternative at the convention, if necessary.
Imagine a scenario where, going into June 7th, the tallies were something like Trump 875 Cruz 625, Kasich 350. It would now be mathematically impossible for Trump to reach 1237 and if he could be kept below 1000, this would be a strong argument for a contested convention, in order to find a more legitimate leader.
Of the states on June 7th, California alone has 172 delegates, making it a potentially decisive battle. New Jersey has 51, South Dakota 29, Montana 27 and New Mexico 24.
What we need is polls for these states and, more importantly, head-to-head with Trump polls in these and the earlier remaining states. From the little evidence seen so far, Trump struggles against anyone head-to-head.
If things go well for him this week and he stays within touch of the leader, Cruz could be the only realistic anti-Trump option left.
That’s precisely why I’ve pressed up my bets on Cruz for both nomination and presidency in the last week, and am seriously tempted to add more. Wyoming may not be a big player, but the scale of Saturday’s victory there – following similar routs in Idaho and Kansas – suggest he has some momentum. So do improving poll numbers in Illinois.
Unless Trump pretty much sweeps the board this week, I can’t see how Cruz’s odds get much longer in the short-term, while he remains in clear second place and winning plenty of races.
If this sequence of events is accurate, the so-called establishment will have to make a decision. While they may hate Cruz and his obstructionism in Washington, my bet is they’ll prefer him to Trump. Both will struggle to win in November, but whereas Cruz won’t split or destroy the party, Trump probably would. Better to have a candidate that you don’t always agree with, than one whose campaign is defined by daily protests, riots and scandal.