Ted Cruz has to win in Indiana Tuesday. If he can't, his campaign is dead in the water and Donald Trump is on a glide path to the Republican nomination. For the last several months, it was unclear whether Trump could reach 1,237 delegates before the convention. But the landscape has changed and Indiana may well put him over the top.
At 996 delegates and on the heels of huge victories in states like New York and Maryland, Trump is as unstoppable as ever. His numbers are climbing everywhere and Indiana is likely the last domino to fall before Cruz and Kasich's fantasy narratives collapse. Trump leads Cruz in every major poll in Indiana, averaging close to 8 points according to RealClearPolitics. And the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Trump leading Cruz by 15 points.
Cruz's desperation has become increasingly visible since his string of losses last Tuesday. So bad, in fact, that in order to change the conversation last week, Cruz prematurely announced his VP nominee, Carly Fiorina. Fiorina brings nothing substantive to the table. This was Cruz's Hail Mary, a foolish but perhaps justifiable attempt to breathe life into a dying campaign.
So far, however, it's been an abject failure.
The Fiorina pick didn't move the needle one way or the other. This was Cruz's grand theatrical gesture, his “comeback plan,” and it barely generated 24 hours of buzz. Worse still, Trump's momentum hasn't slowed – in Indiana or elsewhere. According to a report in Politico, even Cruz's staffers have begun to lose confidence. “In interviews, several aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed growing alarm that Cruz would lose Indiana's primary on Tuesday – an outcome that would be a major blow to his hopes of holding Trump below the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination on the party's first ballot," writes Alex Isenstadt. "The aides concede that, without a win in an Indiana primary where 57 delegates are at stake, Cruz's shot at the nomination would significantly narrow.”
Adept at feigning optimism, Cruz continues to paint a rosy picture in public. “At this point,” he said recently in California, “no one is getting to 1,237. I'm not getting to 1,237 before the convention, but neither is Donald Trump. I believe in Cleveland we're going to earn a majority of support. The reason why Donald Trump is so desperately trying to convince everybody – and why his media acolytes are echoing the message – that the race is over is because Donald knows in Cleveland he will not be able to earn the support of a majority of delegates.”
Cruz is mostly wrong here, but he may be right about one thing: Trump could easily be undermined at the convention by an establishment convinced he's death for the party. But even that is becoming less likely, as GOP insiders are starting to accept the inevitability of Trump. The closer he gets to 1,237, the harder it will be to usurp him, and everyone, including Cruz, knows it.
As it stands, the worst case scenario for Trump is that he enters the convention tantalizingly close to 1,237, in which case the argument for installing Cruz or Kasich or some “White Knight” candidate is scarcely plausible. To thwart Trump at that point would invite internal chaos and a potential voter revolt in November. Which is why, as Politico reports, “Cruz is also likely to face growing pressure from party leaders, many of whom are eager to begin the process of uniting a divided party ahead of what will be a challenging general election.”
Cruz, no matter what he says publicly, understands what's at stake this Tuesday. He's making his final stand in Indiana. If he doesn't stop the bleeding this week, it's over. It may already be over, but at least he can still argue that Trump won't reach 1,237. A loss in Indiana after a stretch of four weeks without a single primary win would deprive Cruz of this and nearly every other relevant talking point. He'll likely press on in any case, but he and everyone watching will know his campaign is a lost cause if he doesn't stop the Trump juggernaut in Indiana.