Conventional wisdom dictates that Republican presidential front runner Donald J. Trump can be beaten one-on-one, and that lower polling challenger Gov. John Kasich should drop out so that non-Trump support can coalesce around top challenger Sen. Ted Cruz. In every contest to date (including Trump’s big win yesterday in Arizona), more primary voters voted against Trump than for him, but Trump still won most of them. Analysis of future primaries, though, suggests that Cruz could actually benefit by Kasich staying in the race, if Cruz and Kasich play it smart. The best strategy varies depending on the state (and sometimes the congressional district).
Winner take all primaries (statewide). In purely winner-take-all primaries, such as Pennsylvania (17 statewide delegates only) and Delaware (April 26), Nebraska (May 10) and finally Montana, South Dakota and delegate-rich New Jersey (June 7), conventional wisdom is correct. But while it makes sense for there to be only one competitor to Trump, you still have to decide who that single competitor should be. This depends on two factors: (1) whether Cruz or Kasich polls best in that state and (2) for whom would the other candidate’s supporters vote if their candidate dropped out. There is very little polling on either question in the later-voting states, especially on the second question. In most states, we expect the strongest alternative to be Cruz, but not always (e.g., Ohio). One would expect Kasich to do better than Cruz in regions where Kasich has already done so, such as New England, but polling in Rhode Island and Connecticut is out of date. Cruz and Kasich could both stay in the race but campaign selectively only in the states where they have the best chance of winning and avoid playing the spoiler in the other states (like they both did to Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida). This option isn’t available if Kasich drops out. Keeping Trump from winning a state is now more important than winning the state.
Winner take all primaries (district). In states that award delegates by congressional district on a winner-take-all basis, the same strategy applies on a district level, and the strongest challenger may vary by district. Cruz and Kasich should campaign just in the districts where they are strongest. These states include Wisconsin (April 5), Maryland (April 26), Connecticut (April 26), Indiana (May 3), and finally California (June 7), the biggest delegate prize. With 83 different districts (53 in California alone), Cruz and Kasich should both have plenty of different opportunities to win, as long as they don’t work against each other in the same districts.
Cruz should concentrate on districts where evangelical Christians dominate. Michael Barone suggests that Dutch-American voters in Wisconsin’s Outgamie and Sheboygan Counties and Jasper County in Indiana might also be Cruz country. Cruz should also consider often overlooked black majority districts. In St. Louis last week, black Republicans voted heavily for Cruz (similar to Mike Huckabee’s success with evangelical appeal in those wards in 2008), but white working class voters in nearby areas voted just as strongly for Trump. Consequently, Trump edged Cruz in Missouri’s black plurality 1st District, 37.0% to 35.3%, to win its 5 delegates. Kasich should concentrate on particular suburbs and urban neighborhoods resembling those he won in St. Louis (e.g., Central West End, the Grove and Mid-Town), as well as academic communities and suburban areas where moderate candidates have succeeded and where evangelical Christians are sparse. Decisions about whom to back need to be made with the entire district in mind, precisely and cold-heartedly, since Cruz and Kasich may each have strong areas in the same district. Otherwise, a divided effort paves the way for a Trump win. In Missouri, for example, pockets of significant support for Kasich and Rubio diverted anti-Trump votes away from Cruz, allowing Trump to win both St. Louis area districts narrowly, with less than 40% of the vote.
Majority threshold. Conventional wisdom (i.e., a two-man race) is the wrong strategy in a state where the winner takes all only if he tops 50%. It’s harder for any one to reach 50% when there are more candidates in the race, but the winner of a two-candidate contest is virtually assured of topping 50%. In a strong Trump state, voters should vote for their favorite, even if that candidate (if still on the ballot) has withdrawn. Maximizing all the non-Trump votes increase the chances of depriving Trump of most of the state’s delegates. New York state and Washington state are in this category (see below).
Minimum threshold. Some states and districts require a candidate to win a certain share in order to win any delegates. New Mexico (June 7) has a 15% threshold. Strategic voting is important here. If Trump has a big lead and only one challenger has a realistic chance of meeting the threshold, the trailing candidate needs to stand down and urge his supporters to vote for the stronger challenger. Otherwise, delegate allocation among just the qualifiers gives both of those candidates (including Trump) more delegates than their proportionate share. For example, Rubio’s failure to meet the minimum thresholds in Texas and Michigan gave extra delegates to Trump.
Both the majority threshold and minimum threshold are in play in a big way in New York (95 delegates) on April 19. Trump has a huge lead there in his home state (64% in one recent poll), but quirky delegate allocation rules give Cruz and Kasich a chance to take about a third of the delegates away from Trump without actually beating him, so long as they can hold him below 50%. The statewide vote (for 14 delegates) and each congressional district (3 delegates each) are 28 separate contests. In each of them, a candidate who tops 50% wins all of that particular contest’s delegates. In contests where no one tops 50%, statewide and district rules are different. The 14 statewide delegates are divided proportionally, with a 20% minimum threshold. Congressional districts where no one tops 50% award two delegates to the winner and one delegate to whoever finishes second. There may be some districts where either Cruz or Kasich can beat Trump and win two delegates. In stronger Trump districts, vying against each other for a district’s second-place delegate improve Cruz and Kasich’s chances of keeping Trump from winning 50%. Since upstate areas usually vote differently from the New York City area, regional polling should dictate where best to expend resources. New York has four black-majority congressional districts where Cruz could do well. Michael Barone suggests that Dutch-American voters in Wayne and Schoharie Counties might be Cruz country. The Hudson River Valley and rural counties bordering Canada could be Kasich country.
The same strategy also applies to Washington state on May 24, where the same 50% and 20% thresholds are also in effect (congressional districts only, with slightly different rules).
Proportional allotment. In states where delegates are allotted purely in proportion to candidates’ votes, there is no need to unite behind the strongest challenger. But most of those states have already voted. The remaining proportional states are Rhode Island (April 26), Oregon (May 17), Washington state (May 24, statewide delegates only) and New Mexico (June 7, subject to 15% minimum threshold).
Advice for voters who don’t want Trump to be the Republican nominee: Use the guidelines outlined above and vote strategically! Except as noted above, casting your ballot for the candidate most likely to beat Trump (especially in winner-take-all jurisdictions) is more important to your goal than voting for the candidate you like best. Pay attention to public polls specifically devoted to your area, so you can make an intelligent voting decision. I documented my own decision to vote for Cruz in the Missouri primary even though I liked Rubio (who was still then an active candidate) the best. Many other Rubio backers did the same, but we fell short by less than one fifth of one percent statewide and by just 643 votes in my congressional district. Voters in later states need to wise up before it’s too late.
Advice for the Cruz and Kasich campaigns: Dividing the vote to conquer Trump requires tacit, if not overt, cooperation between Cruz and Kasich. Some winner-take-all states and districts will require one to stand down and give the other a realistic chance to beat Trump, like Rubio did for Kasich in Ohio. Where 50% is needed to give a candidate all the delegates in a state where Trump is ahead, maximize all the non-Trump votes, even die-hard supporters of withdrawn candidates. If your candidate is unlikely to meet a minimum threshold, support the other viable non-Trump candidate. Refrain from harming the other campaign when that campaign is undermining Trump, because denying delegates to Trump is now more important than winning delegates for yourself. Both campaigns need to make objective judgments about when the other campaign has a more realistic shot at topping Trump. Doing so requires more sophisticated polling, including on a district (or at least regional) basis, to enable informed decisions on strategy. Some of the millions being wasted on ineffective media advertising would be better diverted to obtain timely and reliable proprietary polling information.