What's Driving Cruz-mentum -- and Why It Could Fade
For the last few weeks, Ted Cruz has been on a roll. He racked up delegates in Colorado, Utah and Wisconsin, gained significantly in national polls and (if you believe the betting markets) increased his chances at winning the Republican nomination by about 20 percent. This is a big shift from a little over a month ago, when Donald Trump looked inevitable to some and was on track to get a majority of the delegates by the end of the primaries.
So what changed? Why did Cruz suddenly start making these gains instead of John Kasich or Trump? There are typically a number of interconnected explanations for any significant political trend, but Cruz’s recent success seems to stem from picking up Marco Rubio’s voters and cashing in on early investments in on-the-ground organization.
Cruz Won the Fight for Rubio Voters
To understand why the Texas senator is doing so well now, we have to rewind about a month and a half to March 1 -- Super Tuesday. That day marked the beginning of the end for Rubio. The Florida senator -- who billed himself as electable in November and able to unite the fractious GOP -- won only one out of the 11 states that day and had an unimpressive delegate haul. More importantly, it showed that Cruz, Rubio and Ohio Gov. Kasich didn’t have enough support individually to beat Trump. Each would have to chip away at someone else’s coalition in order to catch up to the billionaire businessman.
And that’s exactly what Cruz has done -- he saw that Rubio was bleeding support after his Super Tuesday losses and he picked up some of those voters.
This graph shows what percentage of Cruz’s ballots were cast by voters who self-identified as very conservative in states where there were exit polls. It’s not a perfect pattern and the data are incomplete, but you can see a general downward trend here. That’s because Cruz was adding Rubio voters -- many of whom self-identified as “somewhat conservative” -- to his already stable group of very conservative voters. Cruz also gained some support from moderates in this time period, but those voters have been a relatively small share of the Republican primary electorate this cycle.
These Rubio voters have also shown up in the demographics of Cruz’s support. Rubio’s base consisted primarily of higher-income, better-educated, ideologically conservative suburbanites. Cruz’s coalition didn’t include many high-income voters until the April 5 contest in Wisconsin.
This is RealClearPolitics’ correlation machine, and it’s designed to show readers what each candidate’s demographic coalition has looked like throughout the primary. Note that the machine is interactive -- you can choose the candidate, pick a state or region, and press “Go!” The interactive will show you which demographic factors led to higher and lower county-level vote shares for the candidate. If you play with it for just a couple minutes you’ll start to see patterns in each candidate’s support (for more on that and a mathematical explanation of what correlation is, see my previous piece with this interactive).
In Wisconsin, Cruz did well in affluent areas. That wasn’t the case for most of the primary season, where affluence was either useless for predicting his vote share or even negative (in some states he performed better in low-income areas). This suggests that Cruz may have picked up some of the high-income voters who previously supported Rubio. Additionally, Cruz did very well with Mormons in Utah. Both Rubio’s and Cruz’s vote share correlated highly with higher concentrations of Mormons in Idaho. This suggests that with Rubio out of the race, Cruz wasn’t competing for the Utah Mormon vote, which helped him sweep all 40 of the state’s delegates.
The data also support the idea that Cruz gained support by appearing to be the most viable alternative to Trump. In the contests after Rubio dropped out (there’s an option for that in the interactive) the Cruz vote share and Trump vote share had a correlation of -0.95 (which is a near perfect negative relationship -- the most negative possible correlation is -1.0). In other words, unwillingness to vote for Trump was the best predictor of support for Cruz. The relationship between Kasich’s vote share and Trump’s vote share was much weaker, suggesting that factors other than Trump drive support for the Ohioan.
Cruz is also cashing in on his early investments in a solid campaign infrastructures. Specifically, his campaign has been working the delegate selection process. This story has been covered effectively by reporters and data journalists at RCP and other outlets, but it’s worth briefly reviewing how Cruz’s efforts to recruit flesh-and-blood convention delegates has increased his odds of winning the nomination.
In the Republican primary, delegates are typically bound according to the results of caucus or primary voting. That means that whoever the delegate is, the results of the primary dictate their initial vote at the convention. That means that if Trump has 1,237 bound delegates heading into Cleveland this July, he would (barring some unforeseen change in the rules) win the nomination.
But if Trump doesn’t have a majority of delegates behind him on the first ballot, the nomination goes to a second round. On that ballot, nearly 60 percent of the delegates become unbound -- meaning they can vote for a candidate other than the one they were initially pledged to. That percentage ticks up to 80 percent on the third vote. The voting goes on as long as necessary, but the point is that on the second, third and subsequent ballots, the delegates rather than the voters pick the nominee.
And that’s why Cruz’s superior organization is benefiting him. Cruz has, in multiple states, worked the delegate process so that his supporters fill those slots and get on key committees. In fact, that’s precisely how he netted 34 delegates from Colorado. The Centennial State doesn’t hold a primary or caucus vote where Republicans pull the lever for any of the candidates. The state’s bound delegates are all chosen through the delegate selection process -- and Cruz won every single one.
How Cruz’s Hot Streak Might End
Unfortunately for Cruz, the calendar might put an end to his momentum. Specifically, a slew of unfavorable states are around the corner, and decisive losses could cause Cruz to lose Rubio voters to Kasich and face more resistance in the delegate selection process.
In primaries, there’s a well-known bandwagon effect -- voters like to cast their ballots for candidates who are doing well -- and in the last few weeks that has benefited Cruz. But if Cruz fares poorly in upcoming Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island), he could lose some of those newly gained Rubio voters to Kasich. While the Rubio voters are close to Cruz ideologically, their income and education levels make them closer demographically to Kasich voters. Kasich likely wouldn’t take all of Rubio’s voters from Cruz, but if he takes too many, he could potentially split the non-Trump vote and help Trump take upcoming winner-take-all and winner-take-most states.
Additionally, if potential delegates see Cruz losing steam, they may be hesitant to sign on for his delegate selection effort. These potential delegates will feel a great deal of pressure not to subvert what they see as the democratic will of the voters. So if Cruz is doing poorly at the time they’re selected, they might try to keep their options open rather than committing to Cruz’s stop-Trump effort. While many of these delegates likely won’t favor Trump -- the party regulars who usually participate in this process mostly don’t -- Cruz would probably prefer that they commit to him rather than keep their powder dry.
Note that none of this is a prediction. Cruz might outperform expectations in the upcoming contests and continue to build on his recent successes. But this is all to say that there’s uncertainty surrounding if and when the good news will stop rolling in for the Texan.