If Cruz Keeps This Pace, Trump Won’t Get a Majority of Delegates

Heidi Cruz and Ted Cruz, who won in Wisconsin by 13 percentage points on Tuesday night. He finally made significant headway with moderate voters.

Donald Trump’s loss in Wisconsin — his biggest defeat in a primary so far — is being interpreted as a sign that he lost ground after several prominent miscues on abortion and other issues.

But the real surprise Tuesday night was not the weakness of Mr. Trump but the strength of Ted Cruz. It was the first contest after the departure of Marco Rubio that was truly competitive, and it looks as if Mr. Cruz benefited a lot. In fact, with a final result of 48 percent, he won a larger share of the vote than in any primary this year.

There’s no guarantee that this pattern holds for the rest of the race. But Mr. Trump will not come very close to amassing a majority of Republican delegates if it does.

It’s not surprising that Mr. Trump lost Wisconsin. For months, it looked to be one of his worst states, whether in the big pre-primary survey by Civis Analytics, polls from Marquette Law or in The Upshot’s statistical models based on the results after Super Tuesday or March 15.

Indeed, we expected Mr. Trump to win around 35 percent of the vote, based on a model of the results. That’s exactly what he won. Perhaps he could have hoped to be a bit higher with Mr. Rubio out of the race, but it’s not necessarily a sign that his abortion comments cost him much ground.

Mr. Trump’s challenge in Wisconsin wasn’t momentum, it was demographics. But what turned Tuesday night into a 13-point victory was the growth in support for Mr. Cruz.

Mr. Cruz was well ahead of the 41 percent projected by the same model. It was also above his typical results in pre-election polls.

It was foreseeable that Mr. Cruz could outperform the model this way, at least to some extent. The model didn’t include any potential gains from Mr. Rubio’s departure from the race, and Mr. Rubio was still on track to win about 8 percent of the vote in Wisconsin when he left. Splitting those votes evenly with John Kasich might have gotten Mr. Cruz up into the mid-40s.

But Mr. Kasich didn’t exactly split those votes with Mr. Cruz; he actually fell back to 14 percent of the vote. Mr. Kasich’s total was less than the model estimated (18 percent), less than the pre-election polls pointed toward (all at least 17 percent), and less than he received in nearby Michigan (24 percent) and Illinois (20 percent).

It appears that many moderate voters, who have long been the biggest obstacle to Mr. Cruz, finally broke his way. According to exit polls, Mr. Cruz won 29 percent of them — far higher than the 12 percent he won in Michigan and 15 percent in Illinois. Mr. Kasich’s share of the vote among both self-described “moderate” and “somewhat conservative” voters dropped.

Perhaps nothing exemplified Mr. Cruz’s newfound competitiveness in moderate areas better than Madison’s Dane County, where he won by a comfortable eight-point margin and 38 percent of the vote. Just a couple of weeks ago, he finished third in places like Ann Arbor, Mich., and Chicago.

Mr. Cruz’s strength did have limits. It was heavily concentrated in the more populous eastern part of the state. In the older, more rural, less religious and less educated western and northern areas of the state, Mr. Trump still ran far ahead of Mr. Cruz.

The distinctly regional element of Mr. Cruz’s strength at least raises the possibility that it won’t be replicated elsewhere. The region is one of the few places in the northern United States where Republicans dominate in well-educated suburbs. (Orange County, Calif., and Indianapolis are similar and still to come.)

But perhaps the best reason to think it still might be part of a broader phenomenon for Mr. Cruz is that he has outperformed expectations at every point since Super Tuesday. He nearly doubled his support in the contests immediately after Super Tuesday, as Mr. Rubio faltered. He posted strong showings on March 15 — like clearing 40 percent of the vote in Missouri and 30 percent in Illinois — that were largely overlooked because it was not enough for him to win.

Those gains put Mr. Cruz very near the point where he could prevent Mr. Trump from earning a majority of delegates — close enough where merely splitting the remainder of Mr. Rubio’s vote would be enough.

If Mr. Cruz’s step forward is representative of the rest of his race, Mr. Trump will no longer be on track to amass a majority of delegates. Here’s one way to think about it: If Mr. Cruz outperforms our model by the same amount that he did Tuesday, Mr. Trump will go from a favorite to an underdog in California, Indiana, Maryland and Montana. Pennsylvania would be competitive. Mr. Trump would not even be near the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination.

It’s still too early to know whether Mr. Cruz’s gains will prove durable. It’s arguably a little troubling for Mr. Cruz that Mr. Kasich underperformed his final poll numbers, since it may mean that Mr. Kasich’s supporters were acting strategically to stop Mr. Trump in a state where Mr. Cruz had a clear lead and vocal support from the state’s trusted Republican establishment — something he might not benefit from elsewhere. The same factors might have helped Mr. Cruz claim a disproportionate share of Mr. Rubio’s former support.

We won’t learn whether Mr. Cruz has made a big new round of gains for a while. The next competitive contest is in two weeks, and it’s in New York, where merely holding Mr. Trump beneath 50 percent of the vote could be considered a win.

But this was probably the first contest since Iowa where the results were consistent with a path toward denying Mr. Trump a majority of delegates. That didn’t keep happening after Iowa — which is a nice reminder to be cautious about a single data point, especially because Wisconsin and Iowa are neighboring and demographically similar states. But it might really represent a turning point in the race.

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