Of course, it is still not guaranteed to happen. It is still possible that a post-primary and preconvention bargain could result in a Ted Cruz-Kasich or Kasich-Cruz ticket being announced before the first ballot, which would earn the necessary 1,237 votes on that first ballot.
As any player of the board game Risk knows, the dominant player will usually attract a combined onslaught from his trailing opponents. So in Maryland, for example, Kasich may find no Cruz super PAC spending there to defeat him.
And then there is the biggest prize of all: California. That June 7 race will see the state award three delegates to the plurality winner in every congressional district and 10 delegates to the statewide leading vote getter. If they are working strategically, then, the senator and the governor will be deciding who is going to attack which district. That's effectively 54 separate elections in the Golden State on one day.
Team Cruz has been investing heavily in California all along and has an amazing network already in place, as well as the endorsement of the California Republican Assembly
, the key organization of grassroots conservative GOP activists. Cruz's delegate candidates were carefully chosen. So the Texas senator has the advantage in the Golden State, and he is no doubt already courting former Gov. Pete Wilson.
But Kasich has Arnold Schwarzenegger
, and the fact is that one of the candidates is going to have to try to find the 25 or so Republicans in Nancy Pelosi's and Maxine Waters' districts and go courting. Arnold helps in some places in California and hurts in others.
So keep watching to see whether a Cruz-Kasich détente starts to take shape, with the first signs of a rapprochement likely coming via some carefully crafted rhetoric of one about the other. It would probably be in both candidates' interests to try. A Cruz-Kasich or Kasich-Cruz ticket could beat Hillary Clinton, so it would make sense for them to cooperate.
Of course that doesn't necessarily mean they will. Indeed, in all likelihood, Cruz believes he has enough "double agent delegates" among the Trump ranks of delegates (see Sasha Issenberg's must-read
on the road ahead) to win without Kasich's help on the first ballot (or at least enough who will bolt to him on the second ballot if he remains at arms-length from Kasich).
But standing in his way is Donald Trump, who now must bludgeon his was to 1,237 locked-down delegates or face an almost certain prospect of being denied the nomination. After all, the 9% of delegates that are by law arriving uncommitted in Cleveland are going to be the most orthodox of party regulars, hardly prime suspects to be wearing "Make America Great" hats. And the "little Marco" delegates are unlikely to ever come round to Trump's camp.
So if there isn't a penalty for voting for someone other than the candidate to whom you are "bound," Trump will have a huge challenge in keeping his own delegates corralled.
To do so, Trump and his team will have to turn the charm on full blast and master the art of calming the skittish man or woman who just isn't used to a tidal wave of social media contacts or phone calls or visits from maniac politicos. (Note to Team Trump: Your guy might want to consider demanding his most virulent supporters tone it down online vis-a-vis these specific 2,400+ delegates, because some of them won't be able to distinguish official Trump from the unofficial legions. Trump's disorderly, lightly guided online shock troops pose a real challenge to his efforts.)
Mostly, though, Trump needs to assure all delegates -- those bound to him and those thinking about it -- that he can be trusted with the nomination.
A solid VP choice will therefore be essential. I have been arguing for Sens. Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst or Dan Sullivan -- all combat veterans, all relatively young,and all "outsiders" -- as the best fits Trump could find for his running mate. Building out a proposed Cabinet early would help that, as would iron-clad commitments of nominations of Judges Bill Pryor and Diane Sykes as his first two SCOTUS appointments. A serious, detailed military rebuild should be on his website ASAP, and the long-promised national security team announced.
The truth is that Donald Trump has enjoyed the ride so far, and he is clearly ahead. But structural forces now confront him that are likely to confound and confuse his very thin senior staff. (Look for Team Cruz to heavily lawyer a Missouri challenge and recount if the 12 statewide delegates go to Trump, for example). And if Trump doesn't release his tax returns, some delegates will bolt for fear of what is there. He would do well to ask Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for another two or three debates to make sure he is ahead of the media.
Most of all, Trump really needs to show he has grasped the art of the deal, because each of the necessary 1,237 delegates is a living, breathing, complicated deal. It is going to take a lot of skills that have so far not been demonstrated to woo the majority. And if he doesn't get that majority on the first ballot, he is unlikely to get it at all.
So, where does all this leave us? Probably with Cruz as the favorite.
That isn't an endorsement, just a result of looking at the rules and some long thinking on the pressure that the delegates will be under, both the soft wooing and brass knuckles threats from online mobs, as well as disrupters on the streets of Cleveland. Of course, that's not what you'll hear from a lot of the mainstream media commentary and Democrats. But they are Greeks bearing gifts.
Think instead about those 2,400 people, in theory bound but in reality not. They are aware that Hillary Clinton is a dreadful candidate, one who could easily be beaten. And think of a GOP that desperately wants the White House back and the country turned around, its children and grandchildren protected and prospering.
Put both together, and it is hard to see them not ultimately lining up behind a rock-solid conservative. In short, despite much of what we have seen so far, expect the party that put the great Abraham Lincoln in the White House to revert to form.