Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced their upcoming primary strategy Sunday night, a concept that both candidates previously swore off: an official partnership.
They've agreed to divvy up some of the remaining primary states – and not compete with each other in three states.
It's not unusual for candidates to strategically pursue specific states – and avoid others – throughout their campaigns. Senator Cruz, for example, largely avoided campaigning in New York, where polls showed he was trailing Trump in the run-up to the April 19 primary, and instead looked west to California. Governor Kasich cut his losses in the South, choosing to campaign in Vermont and Massachusetts instead (where he had better poll numbers) the week before South Carolina's primary.
But Sunday's announcement is a new political twist: Both Cruz and Kasich released formal statements to clearly share their plan with American voters.
"Keeping Trump from winning a plurality in Indiana is critical to keeping him under 1,237 bound delegates before Cleveland," where the Republican National Convention will be held July 18-21, Kasich's campaign announced in a press release Sunday night. "We are very comfortable with our delegate position in Indiana already, and given the current dynamics of the primary there, we will shift our campaign’s resources West and give the Cruz campaign a clear path in Indiana."
Cruz and Kasich have been fighting for the #NeverTrump vote since the field shrunk to three candidates last month, but until recently Cruz was fighting for a conventional nomination whereas Kasich has long banked on a contested convention. Now, after the probability of a Cruz pre-convention was shrunk to nearly nil by the New York primary, the two candidates' now share the same #NeverTrump goal: block Trump from reaching 1,237 delegates before the Republican National Convention in July.
"Having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in November would be a sure disaster for Republicans," said Cruz's campaign manager Jeff Roe in a statement Sunday. "To ensure that we nominate a Republican who can unify the Republican Party and win in November, our campaign will focus its time and resources in Indiana and in turn clear the path for Gov. Kasich to compete in Oregon and New Mexico, and we would hope that allies of both campaigns would follow our lead."
Trump responded to the new alliance on Twitter:
Lyin' Ted and Kasich are mathematically dead and totally desperate. Their donors & special interest groups are not happy with them. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
While Cruz and Kasich's strategy is surprising – and a first for modern presidential elections – their specific allocation of Indiana, Oregon, and New Mexico might be perplexing.
The choice of these three states can't be defended by primary dates. Five Northeastern states hold primaries on Tuesday. Indiana's Republican primary is on May 3, followed by Nebraska and West Virginia before Oregon's primary on May 17. And New Mexico's primary occurs on the last primary voting day for Republicans, June 7.
These three states aren't exactly rich with delegates. Indiana has 57 delegates up for grabs, which is not insubstantial, but it is also less than Pennsylvania's 71 the week before. And on Kasich's end of the agreement, he is looking to gain Oregon's 28 delegates and New Mexico's 24. Of the five GOP primaries on June 7, New Mexico has the least amount of delegates, led by California's 172 delegates and New Jersey’s 51.
Instead, the Cruz-Kasich alliance highlights the importance of Indiana. This late in the race, with Trump so close to 1,237, Indiana's 57 delegates could be a game changer. A Cruz win in Indiana is the best prospect for a contested convention.
"[Indiana] is likely to be the biggest battleground in coming weeks, given both the closeness of the race and the huge haul of delegates," explains Politico's Shane Goldmacher last week. "If Trump is to get to 1,237 delegates, he would likely need to win Indiana. Without it, his best mathematical alternative would be either to flip a likely Cruz state – Montana or South Dakota – or to sweep almost all 172 of California's delegates, a tall task."
Despite a polling black out in Indiana because of a state law that prohibits automated polling, it's looking like a good state for Cruz. The Upshot's demographic-based model has Cruz leading Trump 43 to 40 percent with Kasich trailing at 16 percent. And two anonymous polling groups told Politico last week that Cruz and Trump were in a statistical tie, both with 32 percent. Giving Oregon to Kasich also makes sense for the #NeverTrump duo, as early polls predict Kasich winning that primary over Cruz and Trump.
"It may sound strange, but when you start gaming out the rest of the primary contest, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that [Trump's] quest to reach a majority of delegates before the convention could all turn on Indiana," adds The New York Times's Nate Cohn. "If you divvy up the states by expected results, Mr. Trump wins big in the East and West Virginia, loses the winner-take-all rural Western states, and earns his expected share of proportional delegates in Washington, Oregon and New Mexico."
And that puts Trump 175 delegates short of the nomination.
If Kasich needs a contested convention for a chance to win the presidential election, and Cruz winning Indiana is the best chance for a contested convention, then giving Indiana to Cruz is the best option for both sides of the #NeverTrump fight.