Donald Trump is feeling pretty bullish. After stomping through the New York primary, taking down 60 percent of the vote and nearly every one of the state’s 95 delegates, his campaign strategically leaked an “internal memo” to the Washington Post projecting a tidy conclusion to the Republican nominating process. The Trump campaign expects their man to head into the convention with more than 1,400 delegates – well above the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination – and they’re confident that the team of professional staffers Trump hired will transform his campaign from a six-story tire fire of incompetence into a smoothly run and competent political organization.
That’s extreme optimism bordering on overconfidence. Even though he did have a strong showing in New York, most analysts see a hard road for Trump to get to 1,237 delegates. And his organizational difficulties to date have allowed his rivals to slip in and snap up stray delegates Trump would need to win outright on a first-ballot vote. But the Trump people do have some justification for feeling pretty good these days, given that their chief rival for the nomination is about to go through an extremely rough patch at a highly inopportune moment.
Trump’s win in New York was commanding, but it wasn’t unexpected. What was genuinely eye-opening was the drubbing Ted Cruz received at the hands of New York’s Republicans. The state wasn’t going to be especially friendly territory for Cruz to begin with, given its demographic makeup, and he undoubtedly made things worse for himself by attacking Trump’s “New York values.” But there was some hope among the #NeverTrump set that after winning Wisconsin in commanding fashion, Cruz might be able to pick up a bit of “momentum” and cut into Trump’s lead in New York. Instead, Cruz got wiped out, taking less than 15 percent of the statewide vote and finishing well behind John Kasich. He trailed Kasich is just about every congressional district as well and took home zero delegates as a result. Even if you factor in Trump’s home-state advantages, Cruz’s performance was feeble.
And it could very well get worse for Cruz before there’s any hope of it getting better. The next states on the docket are Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. As New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts made clear, the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states have always been strong territory for Donald Trump, and the available polling for the upcoming states shows this pattern continuing. But the polls also show Cruz coming nowhere close to challenging Trump and, in most cases, at risk of being edged out or soundly beaten by John Kasich. In Pennsylvania, Cruz and Kasich are roughly tied and both trail Trump by about 20 points. Kasich is a couple of points ahead of Cruz in Maryland, and he’s three points ahead of Cruz in the one Delaware poll that’s been released. In Connecticut, Cruz is running a distant third. There hasn’t been any polling conducted in Rhode Island since February, but things don’t look great for Cruz there either. The one silver lining for Cruz is Pennsylvania’s unique delegate allocation system, which could allow him to capture a good chunk of delegates while losing the popular vote.
But Cruz can’t really afford to keep absorbing defeats like the one he took in New York. His path to the nomination right now requires convincing delegates and party elites that he is a strong enough candidate to justify a convention-floor fight to rob Trump of the nomination. Such a course would raise thorny questions of legitimacy and risk alienating huge swaths of the Republican electorate. “There’s a real difference between defeating Trump in a way that satisfies the majority of the party,” writes Brian Beutler at the New Republic, “and wresting the nomination from him in a way that strikes a majority of the party as underhanded.” Cruz is the obvious first choice for a Trump-alternative, but his case will be substantially weakened if Trump heads into the convention having racked up a string of victories, and it will be even further debilitated if Cruz himself closes out the primary season by finishing behind hopeless John Kasich.
That might explain why Team Trump is exuding gross amounts of confidence these days – the calendar is suddenly pretty strong for Trump, and things could get very grim very quickly for his chief rival.