After spending most of April getting obliterated at the polls by Donald Trump and, in most cases, finishing behind hapless loud-talker John Kasich, Ted Cruz’s hopes for scratching out an improbable victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primary have come down to Indiana. It’s his last big chance to weaken Trump and convince an increasingly hopeless Republican establishment that they don’t need to settle for the politically toxic frontrunner. And with voters headed to the polls Tuesday, things are looking pretty bad for Team Cruz.
He’s trailed Trump in just about every public poll of Indiana conducted over the past few weeks, and the latest survey from NBC News puts him 15 points back. That persistent deficit in a state that’s viewed as critical for keeping his campaign on life support explains Cruz’s erratic behavior of late: announcing a weird pseudo-alliance with Kasich that he quickly denied was an alliance; and picking a running mate several months before the convention, before he’s even come close to securing the nomination, and after about just two weeks of vetting. He’s trying to manufacture a rapid and massive shift in the race.
The problem here is that people recognize desperation when they see it. Cruz may be projecting confidence, but everyone understands that he’s thrashing just to stay above water. That desperation was on full display during Cruz’s “Meet the Press” interview over the weekend, which saw him go full-on conspiratorial in trying to dodge any sort of recognition that he’s very probably going to lose. Asked by Chuck Todd if he could ever endorse Republican nominee Donald Trump, Cruz instead laid out a convoluted theory explaining why top media executives are purposefully elevating Trump as a candidate because they all want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.
This is all quite nuts and inescapably pathetic, but Cruz needs something to explain why he’s in this position. The Cruz game plan had always been to win the nomination by mobilizing the conservative grassroots and running as an “outsider,” but Trump swooped in to steal those voters and the outsider mantle from him. Cruz helped to author his own downfall by spending months and months sucking up to Trump as a way to position himself to profit from a Trump collapse that never came. But he’s not about to admit that he screwed up, and he’s not going to acknowledge that his theory of Republican politics was flawed. Instead, he’s going to lay blame for everything on an exogenous factor – the media – in still another move born of desperation.
But as Chuck Todd pointed out, Cruz still has not definitively said he will withhold support for Donald Trump in the general election. Cruz’s pledge to back the Republican nominee remains frayed but intact, even as he casts the likely nominee as a cancer on the party who can’t but lose in the general election. This has been a running feature of the feature of the Republican primary – Marco Rubio sold #NeverTrump merchandise while mocking Trump as an ignorant con man with a tiny dick who will destroy the GOP, but he always made clear that he would back Trump over Hillary Clinton.
That tension made Rubio look ridiculous, and it’s doing the same thing for Cruz. At this point he should just tear off the Band-Aid and declare affirmatively that Donald Trump would not have his support as the Republican presidential nominee. He’s almost certain to lose the primary as it stands, so breaking with Trump couldn’t make his prospects any worse. It might alienate Cruz from certain factions within the party, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a portion of the Republican Party that doesn’t already hate him.
Critics would accuse him of helping to hand the presidency to Hillary Clinton, but he’s already making the explicit case that Trump will get blown out in November and be ruinous for the party. In that sense, declaring flat-out opposition to Trump now would make the most sense and give him a ready-made argument for 2020: nominating the reality TV guy didn’t work, so this time let’s nominate a “true conservative” blah blah etc. It will all be nonsense, of course, given how much time Cruz spent trying to ingratiate himself to Trump and his supporters, but it’s a hell of a lot more consistent than his current position.