A month ago a brokered convention seemed all but assured after Ted Cruz delivered a shocking win in Wisconsin. The Cruz campaign had a strategy to force a second ballot in Cleveland, and a plausible pathway to the Republican nomination.
But it turns out they had the wrong man.
Trump essentially eliminated Cruz’s pathway to the nomination Tuesday evening with a resounding win in Indiana. With an impossible task ahead, Cruz decided to suspend his campaign.
“I’m sorry to say, it appears that path has been foreclosed... We gave it everything we got. But the voters chose another path,” Cruz told a crowd in Indianapolis after the results came in.
The move dashed what seemed, just weeks ago, to be a nomination process that would send delegates to an undecided and chaotic convention in Cleveland.
Having survived “low-energy” Jeb and “little” Marco’s demise, Ted Cruz was the last viable non-Trump candidate standing. The Badger State gifted him with a double-digit victory. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had joked about Cruz’s murder, endorsed him. Powerful politicians who opposed Trump were starting to rally behind him, albeit reluctantly.
The Cruz campaign had a fine strategy. But the person they were selling was fatally flawed.
Cruz was simply unlikeable. For many power brokers in the party the choice between Trump and Cruz was, as Graham had previously put it, like “being shot or poisoned.” Graham may have made his choice, but the underlying point remained: Support for Cruz remained tepid.
“People had a hard time liking him. This was fed by the narrative that nobody in the Senate liked him, the narrative that he didn’t get along with his colleagues,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on eight presidential campaigns and was an adviser to Graham’s own bid for the White House. “I don’t think Cruz was the most effective messenger against Cruz. He just happened to be the last man standing… part of it was that Cruz wasn’t an attractive candidate.”
The point was driven home by exit polls in Indiana, which showed a deeply divided party, one that objected to Cruz being the nominee nearly as much as it objected to Trump being the nominee: about four in 10 of Republican non-Cruz voters in the state told pollsters they wouldn’t vote for Cruz if he became the eventual nominee, according to ABC News.
There were many who had disdain for Trump, but Cruz was an unsuitable alternative. A Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics poll of Republican voters released the day before the Indiana primary showed that 20.8 percent of his supporters were voting for him merely because he was “Not Trump,” nearly as much as the 23 percent who supported him because he was conservative.
Just 19.1 percent of Cruz’s own supporters, in that same poll, said they were voting for him for personal traits, such as his honesty or trustworthiness.
“He cannot reach out to the mainstream… business Republicans. He didn’t deliver them, because he’s not part of that wing of the party,” said Michael Wolf, a professor of political science at Indiana University who helped conduct the poll. “His biggest sources of support are that he’s conservative and that he’s not Donald Trump.”
Cruz also undercut his ability to tout himself as the Trump alternative by having held his fire against the billionaire businessman for so long. In August of last year, for example, the two candidates held a joint event to oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
“Cruz figured out too late that ‘nice guys’ finish last. His bromance with Trump was self defeating. If you want to win you need to take on the front runner, not get in bed with him. He outsmarted himself… Perception is reality,” said Bradley Blakeman, a Republican strategist and former senior staffer for former President George W. Bush.
With the race having been whittled down to just three candidates, the senator, who had built his reputation on opposing the Washington establishment, now found himself somehow tagged as the establishment candidate—a move that hurt him amongst voters in an anti-establishment year, and simultaneously hurt him among more moderate voters that sensed the wave of establishment endorsements were either insincere or entirely absent.
Other anti-Trump Republicans, like former opponent Sen. Marco Rubio, declined to endorse Cruz at all.
The center-right’s ambivalence was also reflected in Indiana: Cruz, perhaps sensing that more moderate Republicans could not be won over, declined to campaign heavily in areas where they lived in high concentrations.
“He lost because he didn’t appeal to the voters who decide statewide Republican primaries in Indiana: the pragmatic Republicans in the counties surrounding Indianapolis,” said Pete Seat, who worked on Kasich’s Indiana field operations until they moved to focus on Oregon and Washington state. “Part of that is that he continued to run a social issues-first campaign—they were running ads about protecting marriage and religious freedom.”
Cruz also allowed the narrative of the campaign to get away from him: something that is not entirely his fault, anti-Trump conservatives argue.
Quin Hillyer, a veteran conservative columnist, told The Daily Beast that Cruz lagged behind because of “Trump’s ability to market himself through absurd, bald-faced, and sometimes vicious lies without being seriously pressed on them, or questioned about them, by the media.”
And in recent weeks, the Cruz campaign spoke often about how well they were doing in delegate math—overshadowing, Republican strategist Heckman argues, the conservative principles that had pushed himself to the front of the pack in the first place.
“He allowed himself to become distracted about the process… too much of their story was about how well they were doing in the delegate selection process,” Heckman said. “But that robbed him of his identity: that he was the one true conservative left in the race.”
With Cruz out of the race, Trump is all but assured the Republican nomination—but leading conservative writers and thinkers began to proclaim on Twitter that they would never support Trump, even to the point of voting for Hillary Clinton.
“We will continue to educate voters about Trump until he, or another candidate, wins the support of a majority of delegates to the Convention,” said Katie Packer, chair of Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump organization.
“Never does not mean maybe. Six out of 10 Republican primary voters voted for someone other than Trump, and we will continue to identify ways to give them voice,” added Rory Cooper, an adviser for Never Means Never PAC, which has helped organize the #NeverTrump movement.
In a dizzying campaign, where the traditional rules of politics appear to be suspended, the Republican nomination may have been decided.
But the battle for the heart and soul of the party itself, and its accompanying conservative movement, is just beginning.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff.