The trouble began with Kansas. A poll conducted only two days before in the midwestern state had shown Donald Trump with a six-point lead over Ted Cruz, but as the votes trickled in on Thursday afternoon, it became clear that the state of the race had completely transformed. Mr. Cruz galloped ahead of Mr. Trump in the early returns and expanded his lead to a whopping 25 percent margin in the final count, nearly clearing 50 percent of the vote statewide.
But Kansas was not the end of the glory for Mr. Cruz. In Maine, a state which Mr. Trump was favored to win and where Ohio Governor John Kasich was expected to take second place, the young Texan crushed his competition, hauling in nearly 46 percent of the vote and defeating Mr. Trump by double-digits once again. In Kentucky, Mr. Cruz shoved aside Florida Senator Marco Rubio and surged to a strong second-place finish. And in Louisiana, where recent polling and FiveThirtyEight predicted an easy double-digit victory for Donald Trump, Cruz once again defied the odds, finishing in second within four points of his rival.
The Texan’s rise in Maine is particularly noteworthy. As I have discussed in the past, the biggest hurdle for Mr. Cruz throughout the primary process so far has been his lackluster support among moderates and center-right Republicans, who regard him as too extreme or uncompromising. Yet in a moderate state wedged deep into the solidly liberal northeast corner of the United States, Mr. Cruz outperformed both Gov. Kasich and Sen. Rubio, the ostensibly moderate candidates in the GOP race, by a long shot. Remarkably, even if the final vote tallies for Kasich and Rubio were combined and then doubled, Ted Cruz would still end up with more votes. When contrasted with his performance in neighboring New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, the Maine result is truly extraordinary, marking a 36-point increase from the average of his results in those states.
Though no exit poll data is available from Maine’s caucus election, it is reasonable to infer that Cruz’s strong performance came at least in part from the same moderate Republicans which have been unwilling to back him in the past. This development foreshadows two possible developments in the GOP race, which I have listed below:
- The race is quickly winnowing to a Trump-Cruz matchup: With party elites and many mainstream Republicans in freak-out mode over the prospect of Donald Trump’s nomination, the pressure upon voters to settle upon a viable alternative to the New York businessman has become almost too great to bear. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney conveyed this sense of urgency to voters quite clearly during his Thursday speech critiquing Donald Trump, encouraging them to settle upon a candidate with “the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.” Though Romney meant to inspire people to vote tactically on a state-by-state basis to defeat Trump, his words—and the growing sentiment that Donald Trump must be defeated—may be driving voters toward Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio, who has long portrayed himself as the anti-Trump coalition candidate, failed to defeat the real estate magnate in Virginia and only picked up a single victory in Minnesota, while Cruz registered strong second-place showings in several states and picked up Texas, Oklahoma, and Alaska. This strong performance may have shifted the momentum of the anti-Trump movement to Sen. Cruz and caused many voters in the Super Saturday states to abandon their first-choice candidates and back him instead in the hopes of stopping Mr. Trump. With another two surprising victories under his belt, Cruz will amass even more momentum by March 15th, potentially upsetting the balance of the winner-take-all races and coming away with a surprise victory or two.
- Tactical voting is becoming the norm: Cruz’s victories on Saturday were almost too good to be true, and they might be. With the wind at his back after a strong Super Tuesday performance, Cruz benefited from a massive influx of late-deciders and election day votes (as opposed to early votes) which pushed him to the heights he attained in all four contests on Saturday. It remains to be seen, however, whether this pattern will follow Mr. Cruz into states like Michigan, where a new poll just put John Kasich a couple points ahead of Donald Trump. If it does not, it is possible that voters are actually taking Mitt Romney’s advice to heart and voting tactically, boosting the candidate who they deem to be most likely to succeed against Trump in any given state. In such a scenario, we can expect Rubio and Kasich to improve their standing in the next polls of Florida and Ohio, where the two men are widely regarded as the most viable challengers to Mr. Trump.
If there were only one thing to take away from Saturday’s contests, it would be that Ted Cruz’s performance on Saturday laid bare the vulnerability of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Mr. Trump failed to increase his average share of the vote from the Super Tuesday contests, demonstrating once again that he has been unable to expand his appeal beyond his passionate but narrow base of support. More importantly, Saturday illustrated that it will not take much coalescing on the part of Republican voters to halt Trump’s progress. Even in a four-man field, Cruz managed to win more delegates than Trump on Saturday and come away with two victories.
But the biggest takeaway is this: If a fractured Republican field, with one of the most divisive young senators in the party at its head, can keep Trump at bay, a one-on-one matchup spells certain doom for the Donald, no matter who he ultimately faces.