Will Ohio be the last stand of the GOP establishment?
That’s what it looks like at the moment. Ohio is the only state voting Tuesday where a candidate who could plausibly claim the mantle of the Republican elite/lawmaker/donor class is leading in the polls.
That’s Ohio Gov. John Kasich, of course. He’s ahead of Donald Trump by about 3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major Ohio polls.
The race is tight though, and the billionaire real estate mogul could still emerge the winner. It’s not clear who has the momentum here – the latest individual survey, released on Monday from Quinnipiac, has Mr. Trump and Governor Kasich tied.
Mitt Romney is campaigning for Kasich across Ohio on Monday in an effort to eke out a victory. That’s not an endorsement per se – Mr. Romney has recorded campaign phone calls for Marco Rubio as well as Kasich.
But Senator Rubio appears to be toast. He’s lagging in polls of his home state of Florida, which also votes on March 15. So Romney, the most recognizable figure of the loose group of party donors and actors that make up the GOP’s traditional top tier, is spending time where it might make a difference.
Here’s the kicker, though – for the purposes of the stop-Trump movement, it might be better if Kasich lost.
The flip side of this thesis is that Trump might lose from winning Ohio.
Why is that? Because if Kasich wins Ohio, he’s likely to stay in the presidential race. That would leave three major candidates – Trump, Ted Cruz, and Kasich – to split the vote heading down the stretch toward the June 7 end of primary season.
Trump may or may not win an outright majority of 1,237 delegates under this scenario. But he’d almost certainly emerge as the delegate leader by a wide margin. Denying him the nomination at a contested convention might rip the party apart.
Scenario two: If Kasich loses Ohio tomorrow, he’ll almost certainly drop out. (Rubio will too if he loses Florida, as seems likely.) That would leave Trump facing Cruz alone.
Senator Cruz of Texas might pick up many Kasich and Rubio supporters, since he’d be the last non-Trump GOP option.
Trump fares worse in a one-on-one race. This is intuitive given that the majority of Republican primary voters have picked other candidates. Cruz fares better. He might even have a narrow path to absolute victory via a delegate majority.
Is this the sort of thing the pundit class dreams up after too many Monday morning doughnuts? Absolutely. But we have math! Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang, who produces election predictions at the Princeton Election Consortium, has run these numbers. He figures Trump is worse off facing Cruz alone.
Losing Ohio actually improves Trump’s chance to win the nomination, according to Dr. Wang. That’s because Kasich would likely stay in, as we noted.
If Kasich dropped out, in the resultant one-on-one race the median forecast in Wang’s prediction model has the Donald with only 1,013 delegates.
“A decision by Kasich to keep fighting keeps the field divided, offering Trump himself the best chance of getting a majority of delegates and ultimately winning the nomination,” writes Wang in the left-leaning The American Prospect.
Of course, the GOP establishment dislikes Cruz almost as much as it dislikes Trump. Scylla, meet Charybdis. But at this point that is a problem the party can’t solve. If GOP bigwigs truly wanted an anti-Trump champion they should have rallied around a single figure long ago. Marco Rubio, who will have time on his hands, will likely remind them of that at numerous Election 2016 seminars in the months to come.