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Why Did The ‘Stop Trump’ Movement Fall Apart?

FiveThirtyEight: Indiana looks like Trump country

For this week’s politics Slack chat, we dive into why the “Stop Trump” efforts have failed so miserably. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

Check out our live coverage of the Indiana primary elections.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): A little less than a month ago, we were coming out of the Wisconsin primary, where Ted Cruz won easily, and talking about whether Cruz had consolidated the anti-Trump vote. At that moment, Donald Trump’s chances of reaching the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the Republican nomination seemed no better than 50-50. Now, we’re about to get Indiana results, and it seems like Trump could wrap this thing up if — as the polls suggest will happen — he prevails in the Hoosier State. [Check out our Indiana previews, here and here.] So … what the hell happened? How did the “Stop Trump” movement fall apart so thoroughly in less than 30 days?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I think a few things happened, not the least of which is that Cruz is unacceptable to most moderate and liberal voters. That just killed him in the Northeast. And once Trump started putting together 50-plus percent in a number of states, voters decided that they wanted to move on from the primary. There’s obviously more to it than that, but that’s my starting point.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Right, what we have here is a failure to communicate. Cruz’s campaign was always about turning out the base of the Republican Party, activists, etc., who were going to bring on the new era of Reagan. He doubled down on the 1990s/early 2000s cultural conservatism of the GOP instead of making the tent bigger, as a lot of people suggested the party do post-2012. That killed him this year as he tried to become the nexus of #NeverTrump. There was some interesting stuff, for example, in this Politico Mag piece about Cruz missing the mark on Indiana’s moderate Republicans in particular.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Don’t forget, though, that Trump’s gains in the polls coincided with the period when he started pressing the case about the Republican primary system being rigged against him. For many Republicans, it’s no longer a choice between Trump and Cruz, but a choice between Trump and chaos, or Trump and a contested convention.

clare.malone: Nate, I think that there’s something to be said there, for sure, but I feel like that “fairness” question was also pretty closely tied to this period of time for whatever reason that Republicans started to sort of wilt and accept that Trump was going to be the nominee. It was the self-fulfilling prophecy of the market.

micah: Yeah, I think the structural things Clare and Harry pointed out were a necessary condition to the fairness argument working.

natesilver: The timing is important, though. Trump began moving up in polls in states like California even before New York — after he was having an awful stretch in Colorado, Wisconsin and whatnot.

clare.malone: Sure, Trump didn’t perform well, but I’m not sure voters got that message. I think a lot of this was good marketing on his part, where he never took off the winner’s green jacket. When he wasn’t doing well, he cried foul, cited national polls, polls in upcoming states, and protested the system as rigged.

harry: Often in politics, it’s not just one thing. It’s multiple things. Here’s another explanation: John Kasich’s inability to repeat what were relatively strong performances by Kasich — or before him, Marco Rubio — in the Northeast. Something happened there. I don’t know what it was, but look at Kasich’s performance in a state like Maryland compared to Kasich/Rubio in a state like Virginia.

micah: Did Cruz need Kasich to do better in the Northeast? What went wrong with the Kasich message?

natesilver: What was ever right with the Kasich message?

micah: Fair point. On paper, though, you would have thought he would do better in the Northeast, right?

clare.malone: It was an effete, nuanced message in a year about … well, let’s just say unsubtle male power. He also had more limited resources: Kasich and his groups raised about $29,227,421, compared to Cruz’s $141,868,484.

micah: “Unsubtle Male Power” should be the name of a band.

natesilver: Kasich has really only clicked with elite-type voters. The median income for Kasich voters so far in the primaries — we have an article detailing this calculation — is $91,000! That’s nuts.

harry: I think that’s an interesting point, Clare. You could make the case that Kasich played with highly informed voters who didn’t need to see a lot of advertising and hated Trump off the bat. Meanwhile, he couldn’t get his message out to moderates who weren’t nearly as knowledgeable about, or tuned in to, politics.

clare.malone: Right, I mean, the guy had no national name recognition, but if you were fishing around in the field of 17 for a moderate, you came across him … or, if you lived in New Hampshire, he cooked you dinner.

natesilver: My question is still — what changed? Kasich and Cruz are both deeply problematic candidates. But they were doing better — or at least Cruz was — until about three weeks ago. Trump might get 45 or 50 percent of the vote in Indiana, something he’d have been very unlikely to do earlier in the campaign based on his performance in neighboring states. The numbers he put up in Maryland were way better than what he did in Virginia. The race looked pretty static, and it shifted, in Trump’s favor.

clare.malone: It’s people getting more and more used to him! It’s grudging acceptance and a desire to have it all just be over, I think. You saw that in Northeastern exit polls, with people overwhelmingly saying, regardless of who they voted for, that Trump was going to be their nominee. Further, among Kasich and Cruz supporters, a majority — 59 percent in preliminary results — said they would not vote for Trump in November if he’s the party’s nominee, a new high. That result was driven chiefly by rejection of Trump by Kasich voters — seven in 10 said they wouldn’t back Trump in the fall, as did nearly half of Cruz voters.

micah: So let’s say it’s both. Trump’s “rigged” argument had an effect. Cruz is basically a factional candidate who tried to win the nomination through the byzantine party rules. Voters, not surprisingly, aren’t that into that. But voters also got to a point where they were like “these other candidates had their chance.”

harry: How about the fact that Hillary Clinton started to look like she was going to win the Democratic primary? That she was going to be the nominee?

micah: The specter of a Clinton presidency is driving GOP voters to rally behind Trump?

harry: I think there’s a feeling that you cannot have a divided party if you want to beat Clinton. Trump is ahead, ergo Trump is the best hope.

natesilver: But Cruz and Kasich haven’t done a good job of explaining why it’s worth going to a contested convention to deny Trump the nomination.

harry: Yes. Yes. Yes.

micah: I definitely agree.

natesilver: They haven’t made the moral case against him.

micah: Which might be the weirdest part of all this.

clare.malone: Was just about to say that. Or they made it TOO LATE, and so it just looked like sore loserness on their parts, not an actual moral stand.

harry: Clinton has made more of a moral case against Trump in the last 24 hours than Cruz and Kasich have, combined, over the past six months.

natesilver: Right. The only sympathy I have for Kasich and Cruz on this front is that the media is so Trump-centric that it’s hard for them to drive a message at all.

micah: It doesn’t help that … how do I say this … a moral case coming from Cruz tends to sound a bit off-key. Or, as former House Speaker John Boehner would say, Cruz is “Lucifer in the flesh.” It’s hard for Lucifer to make a moral case.

natesilver: But they haven’t really tried. Cruz was buddy-buddy with Trump throughout the first half of the campaign, and Kasich has been Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky throughout.

clare.malone: I mean, morality is kind of Cruz’s wheelhouse — depending on if you agree with his version of morality.

micah: But Clare, Cruz is also one of the most nakedly ambitious politicos we’ve seen in some time. So his moral case tends to come off as self-serving. (Which it was.)

clare.malone: Yes! He is. And that worldly ambition makes a lot of people look askance at him. But if you’re a true believer, a member of that base he wanted to turn out, you think it’s amazing that it’s Ted against the world! Sure, you might wish he were more charming, but things work in mysterious ways.

micah: Very true, but that base isn’t big enough to win the nomination.

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: To some extent, I think Cruz lost the forest for the trees. His campaign did a very, very good job of rustling up second-ballot delegates at statewide conventions. But he didn’t really have a plan for what it might look like to deny the guy with the plurality the nomination. It turns out that voters may have made the decision on behalf of the delegates to give the nomination to Trump on the first ballot, instead of making us sit on pins and needles seeing what a few dozen uncommitted delegates would do.

clare.malone: It was kind of a crazy plan to begin with, I think.

micah: So let me ask this: If Cruz was a more “likable” politician, if he came off as less self-serving and had made a strong moral case against Trump, could he have better consolidated the anti-Trump vote? Would Kasich voters, for instance, have been more willing to take the bitter Cruz pill in that scenario?

clare.malone: If he were Mike Huckabee, you mean? Maybe! Never underestimate the power of personal charm.

micah: Yeah, Huckabee is a good example.

harry: No one even close to Cruz’s ideological bent has come close to winning a Republican presidential nomination in the modern era.

natesilver: I’m less sure about that. Cruz had good favorability ratings among Republicans until recently — better than Trump’s until a couple of weeks ago. I do think, though, that Cruz missed an opportunity to pivot after Rubio dropped out.

clare.malone: Yeah, Harry, but we’re not talking about a normal primary — we’re talking about 2016. If Cruz had a less off-putting demeanor, I think there’s a chance he could be doing better … or if his image was more Paul Ryan-esque; not necessarily charming, but earnest.

natesilver: But Cruz never really made the case — and this is a part of the moral case for #NeverTrump — that he was the guy to unite the party. Instead, his closing message in Indiana is about … how Trump is too liberal on the transgender bathroom law in North Carolina? An obscure issue that has the Republican governor in North Carolina potentially in a lot of re-election trouble?

harry: With the exception of Wisconsin, Cruz never won the moderate/liberal vote in any state with an entrance/exit poll. And I think there are many reasons to believe that Wisconsin might been unique. Here’s a thought: Cruz’s message was really a ball of nothing. Sometimes it was Trump wasn’t a conservative. Sometimes it was Trump was nasty. I got lost in it all. I wouldn’t be surprised if voters did too.

clare.malone: I just don’t think he has that in his DNA; he’s a strategist, a debater, a counter puncher (like Trump!) Cruz was drafting off Trump for so long. It’s an odd, discordant thing — he’s a guy who’s all about social mores in his politics — but he was late to make the moral stand (as we have said over and over). He’s more strategist than statesman.

natesilver: One could say that Cruz is a great tactician but a poor strategist.

clare.malone: Yes, one could say that. The line of thinking is the same, that he knows his appeal is narrow, so he’s always down in the trenches. And this was an election to get out of the trenches and charge at the threat (Trump). The Guns of August extended metaphor.

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harry: I just go back to what I wrote last year, when Cruz first entered: He was too conservative and too hated by party elites to win. And when it came down to it, both of those things have held up. Trump had a larger base and the “swing” voters decided that Trump wasn’t so much worse than Cruz to not rally around him.

natesilver: A somewhat broader point is that the primary process, and particularly the Republican primary process, is designed to help the front-runner. That’s why it was kind of amazing that Trump was only treading water for so long. Still, though, the biggest mistakes were made early on in the campaign and not later.

harry: Like when Cruz basically declared his love for Trump?

natesilver: And whatever the hell “the establishment” was doing in Iowa, trying to take out Cruz on the theory they could eliminate Trump later was unforgivably stupid, and a lot of people said so at the time.

Hanging on to the faint embers of Jeb Bush’s campaign for so long and not rallying behind Rubio until it was too late — that was dumb too.

Running almost no negative ads against Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina? Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but that was dumb.

clare.malone: Sad.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.