Polman: Cruz control and the rising odds of Republican chaos (column)
Special to the Daily
How screwed up are the Republicans? Just read the Wisconsin primary exit polls. It doesn’t bode well for November when a huge chunk of the GOP electorate says it won’t support its own presidential nominee.
Yes, Ted Cruz buried Donald Trump with a double-digit win Tuesday night, and he snatched nearly all the delegates, thereby upping the odds of a contested national convention. But if you dig into the exit polls, you discover this stunning stat: If Cruz were to win the nomination and face Hillary Clinton, a whopping 34 percent of the Republican primary voters would not support Cruz. That’s a bad sign for a party that hasn’t won Wisconsin in a presidential election since, oh, 1988.
But it’s actually a choice between bad and worse, because when the Republican voters were confronted with an autumn matchup between Trump and Clinton, 39 percent said they’d spurn Trump. Most said they’d be “scared” of a Trump presidency, while another 20 percent would be “concerned.”
No other frontrunner has ever had to tote that kind of baggage. Politically, that’s a death sentence.
And yet, the Wisconsin Republicans seemed reconciled to a grim fate. When confronted with the prospect of a contested convention — with no candidate having secured a majority of the delegates — they basically sided with Trump. A solid 56 percent said the nomination should go to the guy who won the most votes during primary season.
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So, the Republicans are probably screwed either way.
If Trump fails to clinch on the first ballot (a scenario that’s a tad more likely thanks to Wisconsin), he could ultimately lose the crown to Cruz, the voters’ runner-up. But if that happens, Trump’s fans are likely to walk and thus doom the GOP in November.
On the other hand, if Trump weathers Wisconsin, wins big in the upcoming New York, California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey contests, and manages to eke out a nomination victory, that too will likely doom the GOP in November. When Hillary Clinton is reportedly trailing Trump by only three percentage points in Mississippi — three points, in a state that has voted Democratic just once in the last 13 elections — that portends defeat.
Courtesy of Wisconsin, Cruz will be emboldened to ramp up his quest for every last gettable delegate. His ground game trumps Trump’s, a fact confirmed by Cruz’s pickups last week in North Dakota and Tennessee. Nevertheless, Tuesday night’s exit polls confirm what even Republicans have known for awhile, that they’re basically stuck with a choice between repulsive and repugnant.
And that bodes well for Democrats, in a state they need to win this fall, a state that voted twice for Bill Clinton and twice for Barack Obama. They’re far happier with their ‘16 candidates than the Republicans are with theirs. Hillary Clinton got blown out by Bernie Sanders in the primary voting, but 68 percent of all Democrats said, nevertheless, that they’re “excited” or “optimistic” about a Hillary presidency; and when asked who’d be better at beating Trump, they favored Hillary over Bernie by 11 percentage points, 54 to 43.
Sanders’ fans will likely contend that Wisconsin has given him the “momentum” to overtake Clinton down the stretch — even though he barely dented her 2.4-million lead in the aggregate primary season popular vote. In fact, he barely dented her daunting delegate lead, which, by the way, is far bigger than Barack Obama’s lead at this point in the ’08 calendar.
Sanders fans should read up on history. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was beaten repeatedly in the late primaries, on the way to his nomination and November victory. In 1992, Bill Clinton suffered late-primary losses on the way to his nomination and electoral victory. In 2008, Obama lost six of his last nine contests on the way to his nomination and electoral victory.
This is what Democrats typically do. They send messages before they buckle down.
David Plouffe, who guided Obama’s ’08 bid, knows this drill better than we do. Here’s what he wrote on the eve of Wisconsin (which he pre-awarded to Sanders): “I believe Hillary Clinton has a zero chance of not being the Democratic nominee.” Indeed.
And after Democrats lick their intramural wounds, they can kick back and track the mounting Republican chaos.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (news-works.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.
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