Cruz and Kasich form an alliance: Is that fair?

It’s one thing for campaign strategists to dream up a divide-states-and-conquer plan on a conference call. It’s quite another for actual voters to agree.

Michael Conroy/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz gets ice cream with his daughters Caroline, right, and Catherine during a campaign stop at Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor in Columbus, Ind., Monday. In an effort to deny Donald Trump the nomination, Ohio Gov. John Kasich promised not to campaign in Indiana, in exchange for Senator Cruz ceding New Mexico and Oregon.

Ted Cruz and John Kasich have struck a non-aggression pact in an attempt to block Donald Trump from winning the GOP presidential nomination. Is that a fair way to play politics?

The answer to that question depends heavily on what one thinks about the role parties and their organizations should play in today’s American democracy.

First, the details: On Sunday night the Cruz/Kasich alliance announced a trade of spheres of influence. Ohio Governor Kasich won’t campaign in Indiana, leaving the Hoosier State to Cruz forces. In return, Texas Senator Cruz will pull out of New Mexico and Oregon, giving Kasich a clear path in those states.

The point of this is to try and force Mr. Trump into artificial one-on-one contests in important places. Polls predict The Donald would do worse under such circumstances, since Cruz and Kasich are splitting the anti-Trump vote. In Indiana, for instance, Trump has a lead of about six percentage points over Cruz, 39 to 33. Kasich is third at 19 percent.

Reallocate the Kasich votes, and you’ve got a new ballgame. And Indiana is key – it’s a modified winner-take-all state and it’s got 57 delegates. Deny Trump that prize, and his pathway to a majority of 1,237 delegates gets much narrower.

“A Cruz victory in Indiana would be enough to make Mr. Trump an underdog in the fight for 1,237,” writes poll guru Nate Cohn of The Upshot at The New York Times.

Whether the plan would actually work remains an issue. It’s one thing for strategists to dream this up on a conference call. It’s quite another for actual voters to agree and change their behavior as a result. Kasich and Cruz are pretty different candidates. The former is the let’s-all-hug guy who’s emphasizing his insider credentials. The latter is a combative conservative who’s said insiders are destroying the GOP. Are the backers of one going to switch to the other in the name of stopping a third guy? That’s debatable. They might just stay home.

Then there’s the issue of fairness. The pact’s target, for one, insists it’s a ruse. He denounced it with his typical restraint.

Kidding! Trump hit it so hard he brought back nicknames.

“Lyin’ Ted Cruz and 1 for 38 Kasich are unable to beat me on their own so they have to team up (collusion) in a two on one. Shows weakness!” Trump tweeted on Monday.

But you don’t have to be Trump to see the Cruz/Kasich pact as a bit unseemly. It’s a case of the second and third place competitors conspiring to use the rules to try and pull down the person in front.

That leader is in front by a pretty fair margin, by the way – and it is Republican primary voters who put him there. If you see the nomination process as something that the voters should directly control, you might judge this wrong, or misdirected at the least.

But here’s the thing: The nomination process is not the same as the general election. The organizations that set the process up – the two big parties that govern America – have a vested interest in selecting nominees they think best for the party as a whole. They’re private clubs, and they get to fiddle with the rules, move the goalposts, and otherwise mix all the metaphors they want. That’s why many primaries are closed to all but party members – independents and opposing party adherents need not apply.

“Of course, candidates whom the party likes have advantages in winning party nominations. It isn’t unfair to Trump that the other candidates are trying to do the best they can under the well-established rules,” writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein today in his Bloomberg View column.

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