Donald Trump is getting some unlikely assistance from his opponents in his uphill effort to win a majority of Republican presidential delegates. Ted Cruz and John Kasich remain too busy battling each other to unite in opposition to the front-runner.
Cruz and Kasich have the same goal: to prevent Trump from getting close to the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination. Yet in remaining contests in New York, California, New Jersey and elsewhere, the battle between the two of them sets back that effort.
Instead they could be colluding — that’s perfectly legal — effectively dividing up some states, playing to their respective strengths.
Take New York, which has its primary on Tuesday with 95 delegates at stake. Under the Republican rules, if Trump wins more than 50 percent of the statewide vote he gets all 11 at-large delegates. Additionally, majorities in any of the 27 congressional districts would give him all three of that district’s delegates.
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He’s being challenged in some places by Kasich, the governor of Ohio. If, as Cruz has demanded, Kasich dropped out, it would ensure a Trump sweep in New York.
If Cruz and Kasich were to focus their time and resources in different venues — the Texas senator in more conservative upstate districts and the Ohioan in several New York City and in suburban districts — they would have a better shot at denying the front-runner half the votes in a number of districts. Trump almost certainly will win a majority of New York’s delegates, but the difference between, say, 85 and 60 could matter a lot in his quest for 1,237.
Similar allocation formulas apply the following week in Connecticut and Maryland, where polls show Trump ahead. Kasich could challenge him more effectively in some suburban areas and Cruz in regions where there are more Christian conservatives.
In a number of districts, and in states like Indiana, where all three Republican contenders have strengths, Kasich and Cruz have to compete against each other.
But the final primary day, June 7, underscores the potential advantages of cooperation between the two Trump challengers. California elects 172 delegates, most by winner-take-all vote in each of the 53 congressional districts; New Jersey picks 51, all awarded to the winner of the statewide vote.
A smart challenger strategy would look like this: Kasich would make a concerted effort in a dozen or so California districts, mainly in the northern part of the state; Cruz would wage a major fight against Trump in most of the others.
In New Jersey, Kasich is best positioned to take on Trump and his chief supporter, Gov. Chris Christie. Kasich’s technocratic centrism fits the profile of a good New Jersey candidate, and he has a gubernatorial record demonstrably better than that of Christie, whose hapless presidential run cost him popularity in his home state. In a three-way Garden State race, however, few doubt that Trump would prevail.
But in the past several weeks, Trump’s rivals have been throwing as many punches at each other as at Trump. Cruz’s strategy has been to get to a one-on-one contest with Trump, while Kasich’s has been to win late primaries to demonstrate electability in hopes of being chosen at a deadlocked convention in Cleveland in July.
These plans have been overtaken by events; sticking to them helps Trump.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
©2016 Bloomberg News