One could not be blamed for looking at the Republican primary results over the past 10 days and questioning how someone could stop Donald Trump from being the Republican nominee.
But a look at the delegate math suggests that the race is not over yet. As we laid out after New York, the roadmap to a Trump delegate majority involved big wins in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that voted this past Tuesday. To be sure, Trump’s wins were larger than the polling averages suggested, just like the Empire State primary a week earlier: He generally ran several points ahead of his polling in these states and ran slightly ahead of our delegate roadmap. But as things stand, all paths to 1,237 delegates for Trump run through Indiana and California. And the Hoosier State primary on May 3 is ground zero for the anti-Trump forces if they want to trip up the real estate mogul and reality TV star. If Trump wins statewide in Indiana, which is winner-take-all statewide and by congressional district, he would remain on pace to cross the majority threshold. However, if Ted Cruz wins, it would become harder for Trump to actually hit his target.
For Cruz, he needs a repeat of his victory in Wisconsin on April 5, when he unified anti-Trump Republicans and scored a strong, 13-point victory. But Indiana is not Wisconsin.
Prior to the Wisconsin primary, Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used months of Marquette Law School polling to document Trump’s horrible personal favorability ratings amongst Republicans in the Milwaukee area. Sure enough, this translated to Election Day: Trump got below 30% of the vote in just five counties, all of them in the Milwaukee media market. These counties cast close to one-third of all the votes, and together they accounted for 80% of Cruz’s statewide plurality. In other words, Cruz only won the rest of the state narrowly, but he cleaned Trump’s clock in Milwaukee and a few of its surrounding counties. Overall, Gilbert found that Trump’s statewide GOP favorability in Wisconsin was 40% positive and 47% negative, very poor numbers that presaged his 35% statewide performance. To date, Trump has only lost two primaries east of the Mississippi: Wisconsin and John Kasich’s home state of Ohio.
But according to a WTHR/Howey Politics poll of Indiana, 56% of Republicans there view Trump favorably and 40% unfavorably, not bad compared to Wisconsin (Cruz, Trump’s top rival in Indiana, had similar numbers). Brian Howey, a keen observer of Hoosier State politics and friend of the Crystal Ball, provided us with the crosstabs of the polls, and there does not appear to be a major regional variation in Trump’s favorability. He is a little weaker in the central part of the state (54% favorable), which is where Indianapolis is, than in the east (57%), northwest (59%), and south (60%), but that’s not a dramatic difference — certainly nothing like the huge gap in favorability we saw in Wisconsin between the heavily populated southeast and the sparsely populated northwest. The few polls we have of Indiana suggest that Trump’s ceiling is higher than it was in Wisconsin, a view bolstered by these improved favorability ratings.
Reinforcing those findings is a congressional district model the Crystal Ball put together based on key demographics and other factors that appear to impact Trump’s support levels, including ethnic background, median income, education level, marriage rates, contest type (primary or caucus), voter access (closed primary/caucus or not), the number of candidates in the race, and region. Overall, if the share of the vote from each congressional district is similar to the 2012 GOP primary — not a certainty, of course — the model finds Trump at 42% statewide, close to his polling average of 39%. Thus, much like in Wisconsin, the question becomes whether or not anti-Trump forces can coalesce around Cruz, who clearly is in the best position to challenge Trump in the Hoosier State. That was the whole point of the supposed Cruz-Kasich détente: Kasich recognized he couldn’t win Indiana, so he is grudgingly ceding it to Cruz in order to fight another day. Cruz pulling back in New Mexico and Oregon is not all that meaningful, given that those states award their delegates in a proportional manner and aren’t overly important in Trump’s quest for 1,237. But Indiana is a state where the statewide winner will take the lion’s share of the delegates, and Cruz needs to absorb as much of the Kasich vote as possible to overcome Trump. One other thing: This model generally underestimated Trump’s performance in the recent Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic primaries. That could be because Trump had a homefield advantage and also did not face much competition from his rivals in those states, or it could be because resistance to Trump is fading. If so, perhaps Trump will outperform the model again in Indiana, something he may need to do in order to finish ahead of Cruz.
Cruz’s pressing need to win Indiana is obvious: Not only does it justify the Kasich deal, but it also partly explains Cruz’s late Wednesday announcement of Carly Fiorina as his running mate. After getting blown out in the Northeast, Cruz had to change the narrative with only days to go until Indiana voted, and naming a running mate was one of the few cards he had to play. It’s very rare for someone who is not the presumptive nominee to name a running mate in advance — the only other example we could think of is Ronald Reagan naming Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate in advance of the 1976 Republican convention, a contest Reagan lost to President Gerald Ford. We doubt the Fiorina pick moves the needle that much, whether in Indiana or in California, where Fiorina unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2010. However, every little bit might help. Fiorina did do well at times during her own presidential campaign, and she could be an effective attack dog against Trump, who has said many controversial things about women, including about Fiorina herself. If Cruz does win the nomination, though, Fiorina has plenty of baggage from her time as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard that Democrats could exploit. And while Cruz and Fiorina are both highly articulate and good debaters, they would constitute a charisma-challenged ticket.
Individual congressional districts are pivotal to the delegate math in Indiana (27 district delegates, three per district; 30 delegates go to the statewide victor), so the outlook in each is important to note. Trump appears strongest in the Sixth Congressional District, which is the most Southern-like district in Indiana. Located in the southeast corner of the state, it abuts southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, both areas where Trump performed fairly well (outside of Hamilton County in Ohio, where Cincinnati is). In the horserace, the Howey poll showed southern Indiana was Trump’s second strongest region in the state. The strongest was the northwest part, near Chicago, which agreed with our model’s finding that the First Congressional District is Trump’s second-strongest district.
The western TV market in Indiana is the area that had the highest unfavorable rating for Trump; this includes cities such as Lafayette and Terre Haute. In our model, the corresponding Fourth and Eighth congressional districts were two of the weaker Trump districts. But by far the weakest Trump district in the model was the Fifth, which mostly encompasses suburbs and exurbs north of Indianapolis. We’ll see if the model works out, but Trump’s numbers in that part of the state aren’t notably bad, though his horserace performance in the central region of the state, where this district lies, is his worst in any region. Remember, dear reader, no model is perfect.
The Hoosier State now faces the choice that the Badger State faced several weeks ago: Does it want to vote to bring this race to a close, or does it want the anti-Trump forces to fight on? Wisconsin overwhelmingly chose the latter option, and Cruz is hoping Indiana does as well.
Cruz probably should win Indiana, but to us it’s very much an open question as to whether he will. If Cruz doesn’t, all of his maneuvering behind the scenes to secure the support of delegates who could support him on a second ballot at the convention might be for naught, because there might not be the need for a second ballot: Trump could be wrapping it up on the first.