Donald Trump may be a runaway train. He has blasted through his 50 percent “ceiling,” outperforming his polls and winning a clear majority in the last six states to cast ballots. All that success occurred in the Northeast, however, so here’s the question: Is Trump wrapping up this nomination, or is he just really strong in the Northeast?
We’ll get some answers in Indiana on Tuesday. It’s a culturally conservative state where many political observers (including yours truly) thought Ted Cruz had a good shot at coalescing the anti-Trump vote. Indiana is also, in terms of demographics, slightly below average for Trump. In other words, the #StopTrump movement, if it’s at all serious, should win the Hoosier State. And yet, Trump leads in most of the polling there.
So how should we interpret the final results in Indiana? Let’s walk through the three possible scenarios.
A clear Trump win
Our latest polls-only forecast has Trump winning Indiana 46 percent to Cruz’s 36 percent. And one of the most recent surveys, taken by Marist College, found Trump leading 49 percent to 34 percent. If the results in Indiana look anything like that, and Trump wins close to a majority, the Republican primary is probably over. In all honesty, any Trump victory probably means he’s going to be the nominee. Sure, Trump cannot possibly clinch the GOP nomination by winning the 57 delegates at stake in Indiana, but primary math is sometimes more than just delegates. It’s about demographics.
A Trump win would indicate that his bulldozing of the competition in the Northeast was not simply due to favorable geography. Not only is Trump doing better than our original projections had him in the Northeast, he’s even exceeding them in a more demographically neutral state like Indiana. Looking forward, California, too, would be a demographically fair fight for Cruz, and recent polling has shown a Trump surge in the Golden State. If Trump wins Indiana, there aren’t a ton of reasons to think he’d lose California. And Trump would be all but guaranteed to reach 1,237 delegates if he wins California by anywhere close to the over 20 percentage point lead he now has in the state.
The other big Indiana problem for Cruz is that he’s losing even as John Kasich’s share of the vote is declining. Our latest Indiana average has Kasich down to just 14.0 percent of the vote, which is lower than where he was polling on the eve of Cruz’s victory in the Wisconsin primary. One of the big keys to stopping Trump was for the anti-Trump vote to coalesce. The campaigns tried to help that process along by announcing a Cruz-Kasich alliance, in which Kasich stopped campaigning in Indiana, basically ceding the state to Cruz. But that doesn’t seem to be working. If Trump wins Indiana with Kasich pulling little of the vote, it’ll be a sign that the anti-Trump coordination isn’t going to cut it.
But even if Kasich’s share of the vote doesn’t erode much more, and Trump wins Indiana because of a split in the anti-Trump vote, I’m not sure the implications are any better for #StopTrump. That would suggest only that voters didn’t play the tactical game that Kasich and Cruz wanted them to; either they didn’t know what to do or weren’t willing to cooperate. Neither is good news for the anti-Trump bloc.
A clear Cruz win
You could also title this section “what I thought was going to happen in Indiana.” A Cruz win is what the demographics originally suggested would happen in the Hoosier State. If you look at my colleague Nate Silver’s delegate projections last month, he had Trump losing the majority of Indiana’s delegates on his way to finishing short of 1,237 nationwide. That’s why Indiana has been the focal point of the Cruz campaign. And our polls-plus model still gives Cruz a 17 percent chance of winning Indiana, so it’s not like he’s a super long shot.
If Cruz were to win the state by, say, 5 percentage points or more, it would suggest that whatever was going on in the Northeast primaries may not be transferable to other regions. Perhaps, Trump romped in the Northeast because turnout was so low, and if Republican turnout is strong in future contests (as it was through most of the early primary campaign), Trump can be stopped. A Cruz win would also show that when anti-Trump groups concentrate their efforts, they can stop Trump. Very little money was spent against The Donald in the Northeast; a lot of anti-Trump money has been spent in Indiana.
Perhaps most important for those hoping to stop Trump, a Cruz win in Indiana would be the first sign that the pro-Trump trend of late can be halted. Trump is sitting at an all-time high in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average. Cruz’s own popularity, meanwhile, has taken a major hit nationally; he registered his first net negative favorability ratings among Republicans in Gallup’s surveys. At the same time, there has been reporting over the past week that Republican leaders and delegates are resigning themselves to a Trump nomination. The polls and the stories paint a picture of a party wanting to move on from the primary, anxious to take on Hillary Clinton.
A victory by Cruz in Indiana would, at the very least, forestall the crowning of Trump. We would have to wonder if recent polls, both nationally and in California, are overstating Trump’s strength. Party elites might also interpret the results as evidence that voters haven’t tired of the primary fight just yet. Finally, Trump’s path to 1,237 is still tenuous enough that a setback in Indiana would put the whole enterprise in jeopardy. Talk of a contested convention, which has subsided a bit, would flare back up.
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An ambiguous result
If the results in Indiana are close, predicting the effects on the race are more difficult. A close Trump win, for example, would have fairly clear implications from a delegate standpoint: Trump would probably get to 1,237, if for no other reason than winning Indiana gives Trump at least 30 delegates.1 A Trump win, even a modest one, would also feed the media’s appetite for Trump “momentum” stories. Still, a narrow Trump edge would also suggest that there is a large segment of the Republican Party that Trump hasn’t won over yet, and that Cruz’s hard campaigning helped close what some internal polls indicated was a large deficit.
A close Cruz win, on the other hand, would probably elicit the exact opposite press reaction. Cruz might be dubbed the comeback kid, and he would survive until California by having denied Trump at least 33 delegates2 in Indiana. Yet, Cruz winning only narrowly — especially if Trump clears 40 percent — would be an underperformance relative to where we thought Indiana would land a few weeks ago. It would indicate that the upward trend in Trump’s support, while felt most in the Northeast, is also evident in other regions of the country.
Check out our live coverage of the Indiana primary elections.