In every way that matters, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont liberal, has practically nothing in common with Ted Cruz, a Texas conservative. But in the 2016 presidential race, the two find themselves in a similar situation.
Both are senators who’ve exceeded the expectations of much of the political establishment with effective campaigns. Both face daunting delegate math that will make it difficult for them to prevail. And both believe they can work within their respective party’s rules to win the nomination, even if it means overriding the will of voters.
Sanders’ efforts in this area have already drawn considerable scrutiny, especially this week after two of his top aides offered competing takes for the road ahead. The senator himself acknowledged yesterday, however, “Look, if we do not have a majority, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”
Hard, but not literally impossible. The Vermonter realizes his campaign could, in theory, try to convince party officials and insiders to give Sanders the nomination anyway, even if it means defying voters’ will. The process, controversial though it may be, invites the possibility of the second-place candidate finishing first.
And then there’s Ted Cruz, thinking along similar lines. The Republicans’ process is a little different – there’s technically no such thing as a GOP superdelegate – but the Texas senator realizes that party delegates could elevate him at the national convention if the race goes to a second ballot.
The challenge, the New York Times reported today, is making the pitch in a compelling and principled way.
Mr. Cruz has struggled to formulate a concise argument rebutting Mr. Trump’s claim that the top vote-getter deserves the nomination, alternately citing the number of former Republican presidential hopefuls now supporting him, general election polls and Mr. Trump’s “hard ceiling” of support.On Wednesday, Mr. Cruz told reporters at the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting in Florida that only Mr. Trump’s loyalists believed that the candidate with the most votes should be awarded the nomination. When it was pointed out that a majority of Republican voters seemed to agree – 62 percent, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week – Mr. Cruz largely ignored that fact.“We want to win, Republicans want to win,” he said, before turning to a new talking point: Even Abraham Lincoln, the greatest Republican of them all, lagged in delegates at the outset of the party’s 1860 convention.
This isn’t exactly what Sanders has argued in his race, but it’s close.
To be sure, it’s still possible that Trump will secure 1,237 delegates ahead of the convention, which will almost certainly make every other consideration irrelevant because Trump will have secured the nomination. (I say “almost certainly” because there’s always the possibility that the Republican rules committee will simply wipe the slate clean and make every pledged delegate an unaffiliated delegate, but that’s extremely unlikely to happen – and would effectively launch the political equivalent of a nuclear war within the party.)
But if Trump falls short of 1,237, Cruz will take his fight to Cleveland, effectively telling the party what Sanders is telling Democrats: “I came in second, but I think I’m a better candidate, so elect me anyway.”
Up until a few weeks ago, the Texan still held out hope of reaching 1,237 himself, but after failing miserably in New York, that’s no longer an option: it’s now a mathematical certainty that Cruz will finish second, no matter what happens in the rest of the primaries and caucuses.
But that’s apparently not a deterrent.
What about the talking point that notes Lincoln coming up short at the party’s 1860 convention? It’s true that in several instances in American history, the GOP candidate who led on the first round of convention balloting didn’t end up winning the nomination, but each of these instances occurred before the modern primary process began. The party did not have to worry about rejecting the presidential candidate who earned the most pledged delegates, the most raw popular votes, and the most states.
And in 2016, Donald Trump has earned the most pledged delegates, the most raw popular votes, and the most states.
To be sure, Cruz has been far better organized, and his strategy has played out with amazing efficiency at state conventions. If Cruz prevails, he’ll do so by playing within the rules, and being better prepared for the game.
But he’ll nevertheless be stuck with questions surround the legitimacy of the process – why a second-place candidate deserved to finish first after more than 50 primaries and caucuses – and right now, Team Cruz seems to have no idea how to answer those questions.