East Coast Primaries: Analyzing Donald Trump’s Momentum and the Stakes for Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at a news conference after a campaign rally at Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., on April 23.

 

Dan Schnur is director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics and was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. He is on Twitter: @DanSchnur.

For Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, April has become the cruelest month. Their stirringvictories in the Wisconsin primary were only three weeks ago, but the election calendar’s hyper-speed since the Cheesehead vote has made it seem like three lifetimes. The Cruz and Sanders campaigns were buffeted by two weeks of white-hot media focus on a New York primary that provided an immense home-field advantage to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and both front-runners achieved sizable victories. The five mid-Atlantic states voting Tuesday are almost as advantageous for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump–and the outcomes could leave their challengers gasping as the campaign trail finally shifts to more hospitable-to-them Midwestern territory next week.

As the two challengers stagger into May, the tone of the concession speeches by Mr. Sanders and Mr. Cruz Tuesday night carry great import. The stakes are higher for Mr. Sanders, whose path to the Democratic nomination has become almost unfathomable. While he is still likely to compete all the way through California in hopes that a strong showing in the Golden State’s June 7 primary would allow him to head into the Democratic convention with increased momentum and leverage, Mr. Sanders is sending mixed signals about his willingness to reconcile with Mrs. Clinton and the energy he would devote to encouraging his supporters to turn out for her in the fall. A shellacking Tuesday may provide him with an appropriate opportunity for a gentler approach. But predicting Mr. Sanders’s behavior has been almost as fruitless an endeavor as forecasting the tone and content of a Donald Trump speech. So we’ll find out more when he starts talking–or, maybe, when he stops.

Mr. Cruz is in a less precarious position, as the odds are still against Mr. Trump securing the GOP nomination on the first ballot at the Republican convention. Yet Mr. Cruz will almost certainly lose all five states Tuesday night. His goal is simply to endure one more week of sweeping Trump victories and then make his stand in Indiana. But another night of unfavorable primary results and the subsequent news coverage will not do much to motivate Cruz supporters in the Hoosier State, so the question for his election-night speech is how to sound defiant but not delusional.

Welcome news emerged late Sunday for Mr. Cruz when his campaign and the campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced a non-aggression pact. Under their deal, Mr. Kasich will not campaign in Indiana in exchange for Mr. Cruz staying out of Oregon and New Mexico in a few weeks. Rather than continuing to cannibalize each other’s support, the two Trump rivals have effectively raised the vote threshold for Mr. Trump to win these states. A Trump victory in Indiana would greatly increase the likelihood of the businessman gaining a first-ballot nomination, so Mr. Cruz’s opportunity to take him on one-on-one without losing votes to a neighboring-state governor is a critical benefit.

April has been a month of dominance for Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. But for very different reasons, May should be a much more interesting one for both parties.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during a town hall at a community center in Rockville, Md., on April 25.

Jim Manley, director of the communications practice at QGA Public Affairs, is a former aide to Sens. Harry Reid and Edward Kennedy. He is on Twitter: @jamespmanley

Donald Trump is set to win most if not all of the primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island on Tuesday. There has been a lot of speculation about what his continued march toward the GOP nomination means for the Republican Party and for our country. At least one thing that is clear: His success is great for the Democratic Party.

If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, Hillary Clinton is all but certain to be the next president of the United States. That’s the logical conclusion when considering Mr. Trump’s 67% unfavorable rating, as a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found. That is toxic for a front-runner.

Mr. Trump recently touted his reinvention as a candidate who would act presidential. Yet his brash style has continued unabated. He attacked John Kasich this week over what he called Mr. Kasich’s “disgusting” eating habits.

Still, the alliance announced by the Cruz and Kasich campaigns regarding the upcoming primaries in Indiana, Oregon, and New Mexico is unlikely to dent Mr. Trump’s momentum. For one thing, the pact is too cute by half. I suspect that neither Mr. Kasich nor Ted Cruz has the discipline necessary to stick to his pledge not to compete in certain states. But it’s also unlikely to work because voters in those states are not going to go for it. All his rivals have managed to do is give Mr. Trump a big stick to bash them with charges that they are colluding to steal votes from his supporters–and that, ultimately, will feed into his momentum.

Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in Harrington, Del., on April 22.ENLARGE
Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in Harrington, Del., on April 22. PHOTO: ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

David Kochel was chief strategist to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and was an adviser to Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaigns. He is on Twitter: @DDKochel.

Tuesday’s primaries are effectively round two of the Return of Trump-mentum. With 118 delegates at stake in five Eastern states—Pennsylvania has an additional 54 delegates not bound to the popular vote—Donald Trump is poised to follow his New York win with five more victories. Here are three things I’ll be watching Tuesday night:

1. Can Mr. Trump beat expectations again? Polling suggests that he holds a commanding lead, and he is expected to win all five states. One problem for Mr. Trump: With the exception of New York, he rarely outperforms his public polling. The size of the victories Tuesday will be telling because in primary politics beating expectations can be far more important than beating your opponents, and Mr. Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates has little margin for error. Although a front-runner in delegates and the popular vote, Mr. Trump has still not consolidated this race like past GOP nominees, who had virtually eliminated their opponents by this point.

2. Maryland might be the only interesting state. On Super Tuesday, voters in neighboring Virginia went with Mr. Trump, but he finished less than three points ahead of Marco Rubio, at 34%. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have both invested in Maryland, seeing it as the best opportunity to knock off Mr. Trump in a few key congressional districts close to Washington, D.C. It will be interesting to see whether their Maryland investment pays off by denying Mr. Trump some much-needed delegates.

3. How is all this playing in Indianapolis? Two campaigns are now being waged, a point underscored by the news that Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kasich have formed a tag team to stop Mr. Trump by picking and choosing the future states in which they’ll compete. One campaign is the 10 electoral contests that remain on the calendar; the other is the battle for delegates. Mr. Cruz is winning the latter campaign, masterfully organizing state delegate-selection victories; he is positioned to deal a powerful blow if Mr. Trump comes up short in the first ballot in Cleveland. To do that, Mr. Cruz will need a strong argument in the six weeks between the final primaries and the convention in July. His best argument would be to win Indiana, stop Mr. Trump’s momentum cold, and follow with wins in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana (all states where he is expected to do well).

Mr. Trump needs Indiana to maintain his momentum. A Wisconsin-style finish for Mr. Cruz there would turn the tables against Mr. Trump again. A big Trump win in a conservative Midwestern state such as Indiana would help him come close to the magic number. Either way, get your popcorn ready; it’s going to be quite a show.

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