The Problem With Ted Cruz’s ‘Firewall’: Conservative States Award Delegates Proportionally

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A few months ago, I was among the early commentators who observed that [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] might just be running a brilliant stealth campaign.

His recent polling surge seems to confirm my suspicion. As Chris Cillizza writes, “inside the numbers of a new Quinnipiac University national poll on the 2016 field, it’s Ted Cruz who looks like the candidate you might want to bet on.”

I wouldn’t bet the farm, though. He’s looking good in national polls — and seems tailor-made for Iowa. But Cruz — maybe uniquely — faces a serious conundrum: He has staked a lot on winning the “SEC primary,” but as Henry Olson has observed: All of these very conservative states “have provisions allocating their delegates proportionally.”

Conversely, the more moderate states are winner-take-all at the congressional district level. This doesn’t really seem fair (as fivethirtyeight puts it, “The Republican voters who will have little to no sway in the general election could have some of the most sway in the primary”) but those were the rules states agreed to when they opted to move up their primary elections on the calendar. To put it simply, they bet on the importance of providing momentum over math.

This could be a very big deal. To really hammer home this point, here’s more from Olsen:

New Jersey votes in June and awards its 51 delegates to the statewide winner. The 2008 exit poll showed that only 19 percent of New Jersey Republican voters called themselves “very conservative” compared to 44 percent in Louisiana. The simple decision to vote late and by winner-take-all guarantees the establishment choice a 51 delegate lead on his more conservative opponent, more than he is likely to get by winning Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama combined.

… Florida and Ohio vote on March 15, and each awards all of its delegates to the statewide winner. Even if favorite sons Jeb Bush, [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore], and John Kasich are out of the race, the establishment conservative or moderate choice is still likely to win both states because of the relatively small number of movement conservatives. In 2012, only 33 percent of Florida GOP voters were very conservative; in Ohio, only 32 percent were. [Emphasis mine.]

I’m told that Cruz is investing heavily in Florida, but as Olsen suggests, the state’s makeup does not favor him. (Then again, what if Rubio and Bush split the vote?)

It’s still early — and anything can happen. But we’ve entered the time of year when it’s reasonable to start talking about such things as (gasp!) delegate counts. The truth is that there are numerous variables — some of which seem arbitrary — that could determine the GOP’s nominee. And one of those variables could be the fact that winning a moderate state counts for more than winning a conservative one.

This conundrum arguably hits Cruz harder than anyone else. First, of course, there is the fact that he has invested heavily in the SEC primary, and that his evangelical appeal presumably is strongest in these states. Interestingly, though, it’s not clear that Donald Trump is really that harmed by this phenomenon. This is not to say that Trump can’t win some SEC states, but it is to say that he could potentially have a good shot at some of the winner-take-all states, too (we tend to think of Trump as conservative, but the truth is that he gets a lot of support among secular, moderate and liberal Republicans).

There are a ton of variables to consider. Keep this in mind the next time a national poll shows somebody surging.

Note: The author’s wife formerly advised Ted Cruz’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

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