The GOP freakout nears its climax: If anybody is going to beat Trump, it's going to be Cruz & it's going to be now

While the prospect of a contested convention lingers, tonight's primaries still could be game changer (or not)

Published March 8, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

 Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (Reuters/Tami Chappell/Chris Keane/Photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (Reuters/Tami Chappell/Chris Keane/Photo montage by Salon)

Today is the day of the Michigan, Idaho, Hawaii and Mississippi GOP primaries and they may just prove to be a turning point in this race. Or not. Every time you think the trajectory is set, something happens to change it up and we're right back where we started. As of this morning, whatever polling is available suggests that Donald Trump is still in the lead in all four states, but much of it was conducted before the fallout from the "little hands" debate at the end of last week. At the end of the night, we'll see just how much, if any, altitude Trump lost in the last unbelievable week -- and if his closest rival Cruz is benefiting from it.

Michigan is the one state which has very recent polling that suggests Trump may be losing ground there. Some polls show Cruz and Kasich neck and neck as runners-up, others have Cruz firmly in second place. One might assume that Ben Carson's former votes would accrue to Ted Cruz, being that they both tended to attract the more traditional evangelical/conservative movement types. But with Rubio sinking like a stone, Kasich may be equally benefiting if those votes are going to him. It's always possible a few Trump voters are finally sobering up as well. In the Super Saturday states, the early voting went for Trump much more heavily than the election day votes. (It's easy to make too much of that however, since Trump hasn't been winning the late deciders throughout the whole race so far.)

Michigan is the big prize today, and it should be an easy win for Trump. It's filled with what you might call "Ted Nugent Republicans" -- pot smoking, gun toting white guys who don't even pretend to be religious and couldn't care less about what the Club for Growth thinks is important for "the economy." They like heavy metal in both cars and music, and they do not care for sensitive new-age types or holy rollers either. If Trump loses these guys, he's lost his base.

There was a time when Ted Cruz thought he would capture this region as part of his plan to reinvigorate the alleged "missing white voters," who were so demoralized by all the sin and depravity of the Obama years that they had simply given up. Unfortunately for Cruz, the numbers have never really added up. Ron Brownstein did a deep dive into all the data back in 2013, and concluded that it was a monumental long-shot:

For Republicans to increase the white share of the electorate in 2016 or beyond would require them to reverse the virtually uninterrupted trajectory of the past three decades. According the NJ exit poll analysis, the white share of the total vote has declined in every election since 1980, except in 1992 when it ticked up to 88 percent (from 85 percent in 1988) amid the interest in Perot's quirky third-party bid. Otherwise, this decline has persisted through the years of both high and low overall turnout. Even in 2004 when George W. Bush's state of the art micro-targeting and turnout operation allowed Republicans to equal Democrats as a share of the total vote for the only time in the history of polling, whites' share dripped 4 percentage points from 2000.

This questionable theory is actually just another version of the old right-wing belief that Republicans only lose because they weren't conservative enough. If only the candidates would stay true to the cause and eschew all attempts to broaden the appeal of the party people would vote for them in massive numbers. The problem here is that for every conservative Republican you might turn out with an extreme right-wing agenda, you also turn out at least one liberal Democrat who will be equally motivated to stop it. This leaves people who think of themselves as moderates (there are a lot of them) to swing one way or the other. What are the chances that Ted Cruz will appeal to any of those people? His own party can barely tolerate his presence.

Cruz's strategy hinged upon the dubious assumption that he could uniquely appeal to movement conservatives, evangelicals, libertarians and blue collar workers. Having proved he could bag the Southern evangelicals, Michigan was to be one of the hunting grounds Cruz thought would bring out those missing voters -- the upper midwest being he epicenter of the blue collar "Reagan Democrats," who left their party in rebellion over its wanton ways some 35 years ago. (They have actually been called "Republicans" for a very long time now, so it's a mystery why Cruz and others persist in thinking of them as something distinct from the blue collar white people who always vote for the party.) This would be the first big test of whether he can broaden his appeal beyond the movement conservative evangelical center of the party.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump shot holes all through his strategy by bringing in (white, of course) Southern voters from all classes and age groups with his incoherent authoritarian nationalism and an appeal to a fair chunk of the "prosperity theology" evangelical voters whom Cruz assumed were a lock for his campaign. So far it looks as though many of those missing white voters were looking for a man on a white horse, not a movement foot soldier.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been pushing the "contested convention" theory to stop Trump, but this would also have the effect of stopping Cruz. If the establishment could stand the guy, they'd clearly tell Rubio and Kasich to drop out and get behind him. But they're not, and it's because they know he is a very weak general election candidate. At this point, at least half of the people in the GOP find him to be thoroughly repellent. The idea that he could win the general election is so farfetched that the fear is that it could completely destroy them down-ticket if he were the nominee.

Of course, Trump could do the same, which explains why party pooh-bahs are trying to manipulate the system they created to install someone other than what appears to be the first and second choices of Republican voters as the presidential nominee. They have a major problem on their hands, after all. But it's very unlikely that their restive rank-and-file will go along with this plan to save the party from its own voters.

Last night on CNN, Republican strategist Anna Navarro put it this way:

A brokered convention would be the equivalent of the political "Hunger Games". And I am not exaggerating. Take a look at what's going on at Donald Trump events. Take a look at what happens to protesters. They get basically assaulted. If you think people aren't going to get clubbed like baby seals on the floor of the convention you haven't been watching what's been happening.

As Michelle Goldberg noted in Slate, the conservatives at the CPAC convention last weekend were not suffering the same level of angst as the political establishment about either of the top two candidates. Cruz was the big winner there and many people surmised that Trump backed out at the last minute because there were people talking about staging a walk-out and he was sure to be booed. Still, Goldberg found that most people would vote for Trump if he won the nomination and that rank-and-file Republicans are not as panicked as we might think.

She wrote:

Kellyanne Conway, the conservative pollster and president of a pro-Cruz super PAC, told me that Trump is the second choice of most Cruz voters. “The one-two punch of Trump and Cruz has shown that this is a conservative populist party,” she told me.

Of Mitt Romney’s warning about the dangers of Trumpism, Conway says, “If Gov. Romney really thought his message was going to be so resonant among the conservative faithful, he would have delivered it here at CPAC. But then he would have risked being booed. And he would have risked running into a movement that’s fairly unified in its thirst to beat Hillary Clinton in the fall.” In other words, despite the protestations of aghast intellectuals and religious purists, conservatives will eventually fall in line behind Trump if that’s what it takes to win.

Grover Norquist agreed, telling Goldberg that he was perfectly happy with any of the last four standing, and believed there wasn't much a difference between them. Like all the rest, he reserved his scorn for the "establishment."

(It's amazing how all these people who've been hobnobbing in the highest circles of GOP power for decades all consider themselves to be anti-establishment. One wonders if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz see it that way.)

Republican voters are justifiably angry that their top two choices for the presidential race are seen as unacceptable by the powerful members of the party. And the powerful members of the party are justifiably concerned that their members are about to choose one of two extremists who are likely to lose in a landslide in the fall and possibly take the Senate with them. It's a problem.

Tonight we'll see if Ted Cruz is going to be able to transcend the conservative movement that spawned him and to which he shown tremendous loyalty. And we'll get a sense if the hot air really is coming out of the Trump balloon or if he just had a bad few days in some caucuses where his lack of organization makes a bigger difference. But either way, this race is now between Trump and Cruz and any ideas these GOP establishment types have about usurping the will of their voters is likely to be met with fierce resistance.

In the end, it's very doubtful that will come to pass. They'll accommodate themselves to whomever wins. And then they'll accommodate themselves to a probable loss in the general election. For all their handwringing and chest beating, they really don't have any choice.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary John Kasich Marco Rubio Ted Cruz