The Republican Party may be on the verge of an irrational break. Donald Trump continues to rack up delegates at a dizzying pace, but he looks less electable against Hillary Clinton by the day. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the way through the delegate chase, the #NeverTrump movement is a flailing strategic fiasco. John Kasich refuses to exit the race, and a frustrated Ted Cruz has declared that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump.
Cruz and Kasich would be odd bedfellows within today’s GOP. But the truth is, if they want to thwart Trump, their only hope may be to coordinate a last-ditch, two-front assault on the front-runner. If they don’t start divvying up turf, Trump is much more likely to prevail on the first ballot in Cleveland.
It’s possible, as Sean Trende has persuasively argued, that Kasich’s continued candidacy helps Trump much more than it hurts him. We may never know. But even after being mathematically eliminated from winning 1,237 delegates, Kasich seems to have made up his mind. And rather than piling on with calls for Kasich to drop out, #NeverTrump forces might be better off considering Kasich’s usefulness in the later stages of the race.
There are still a few states that award their delegates proportionally where a continued three-way race could help drive down Trump’s share of delegates: New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.
In addition, there are a handful of places — mostly well-educated lefty hangouts — where Kasich appears better-positioned than Cruz to deny Trump delegates. Cruz could cede all these places to Kasich. In exchange, Kasich could lay off winner-take-all states where only Cruz has a chance to beat Trump:1 Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota.2
How did we distinguish the “Kasich Front” from the “Cruz Front”? It’s an inexact science, and we had to make some judgment calls. Each state’s unique delegate rules play a big role in whether a Kasich push would help or hurt Trump. For example, if Kasich doesn’t receive at least 15 percent of the vote in New Mexico, all delegates will be divided between Trump and Cruz, inflating Trump’s share. As such, Kasich should probably join Cruz on the trail there.
But I also examined GOP primary results in the 2,799 jurisdictions across the 30 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have voted to identify the types of places where Kasich, not Cruz, might be best-suited to beat Trump.3
What’s a prototypical “Kasich Zone”? Look far to the ideological left. So far, outside of Ohio, Kasich has finished ahead of Trump and Cruz in just 118 jurisdictions, including D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Hanover, New Hampshire; Amherst, Massachusetts; and a lot of Vermont. The Birkenstock and Ben & Jerry’s belt is Kasich’s sweet spot.
But maybe that’s not being entirely fair to Kasich. For a long time between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, Marco Rubio was the leading “establishment” candidate while Kasich lagged. So let’s throw in the 124 additional jurisdictions where Rubio and Kasich combined for more votes than Trump and Cruz:4 These include Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; the urban core of Atlanta; three Twin Cities congressional districts in Minnesota; and many more towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. That brings us to a total of 242 jurisdictions.
What do these 242 places have in common? They tend to be exceedingly blue and well-educated: President Obama took a weighted5 average of 62 percent of the vote in them in 2012, compared with just 42 percent in the rest of the places that have voted so far in the GOP race. And a weighted average of 53 percent of their residents 25 or older hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 26 percent in other jurisdictions that have voted to date.
Of the 894 delegates up for grabs between now and June, 60 are at stake in districts where Obama won in 2012 and at least 40 percent of residents 25 or older hold at least a bachelor’s degree — in other words, Kasich’s “strike zone.” These include districts anchored by the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, New York City’s Upper East Side, the wealthy Maryland suburbs of Washington and the wealthy Connecticut suburbs of New York. Additionally, given his Keystone State roots, Kasich may also be better-positioned than Cruz to compete for Pennsylvania’s 17 statewide delegates.6 They may not sound like much, but these 77 delegates could be the difference between Trump reaching 1,237 and falling short.
Meanwhile, Cruz is probably Trump’s more viable opponent most everywhere else. Cruz’s bread and butter is deeply red locales. So far, Cruz has won 43 percent of votes cast in jurisdictions where Obama took less than 20 percent of the vote in 2012, but just 18 percent in places where Obama took more than 60 percent. By contrast, Trump’s share of the vote appears to be fairly steady across red and blue zones, but in terms of education, his coalition is the opposite of Kasich’s: Trump fares best in the least-educated locales. As such, Cruz and Kasich would probably be wise to avoid wasting money against Trump in West Virginia, where just 19 percent of residents age 25 or older hold at least a bachelor’s degree, the lowest rate in the country.
In launching a two-front assault, Cruz and Kasich would certainly risk the outward appearance of collusion, playing into Trump’s message that “establishment politicians” are ganging up against him. But at this point, the alternative is defeat. If Trump keeps taking advantage of his opponents’ strategic dissonance, he’ll roll through Wisconsin on April 5 and the Acela corridor on April 19 and 26, and his growing air of inevitability will likely propel him past the finish line in May and June. Kasich and Cruz’s choice is simple: wage war on Trump on two separate fronts, or lose.