Today came word that Ted Cruz and John Kasich have agreed to coordinate in future primary contests in an attempt to keep Donald Trump’s delegate count as low as possible. The two remaining Trump rivals reportedly agreed to stand aside in certain states where they do not pose a credible threat to the tycoon. Thus, Kasich wouldn’t actively seek votes in Indiana and Cruz wouldn’t actively seek them in Oregon and New Mexico.
Later today it became clear that the Cruz-Kasich understanding is, indeed, more of a non-aggression pact than an alliance. Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Kasich said that voters in Indiana “ought to vote for me,” even if he doesn’t campaign there. “I don’t see this as any big deal,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Cruz campaign reportedly advised supporters not to endorse tactical voting, whereby his supporters vote for Kasich in states where the Ohio governor is running stronger than Cruz against Trump. “We never tell voters who to vote for,” read the suggested Cruz talking point. “We’re simply letting folks know where we will be focusing our time and resources.”
(I will vote for Cruz tomorrow even though Kasich is clearly stronger than Cruz in my liberal Maryland congressional district, from which delegates will be allocated based on the vote in the district).
What should we make of the Cruz-Kasich non-aggression pact?
First, if all this really amounts to is an agreement not to do something — i.e., not to campaign in certain jurisdictions — it should have been silently. By announcing this pact, the two candidates enable Donald Trump to cry conspiracy (as he has) and to reinforce his pitch that Cruz is part of, or at least in cahoots with, the “establishment.”
Second, the agreement shows desperation on Cruz’s part. After his big Wisconsin victory, the candidate probably believed that, though the upcoming contests in the East would be wins for Trump, he had a firewall in Indiana.
However, recent polls show Trump leading in Indiana. Cruz must sense that a loss there, though not fatal in theory (as I noted here, even if Trump wins in Indiana, he will still find it difficult to lock down 1,237 delegates via the primary/caucuses/state conventions route), would be nearly fatal in fact.
Hence the need for Cruz to maximize his Indiana prospects by sidelining Kasich.
Though he trails Trump in Indiana in a three-way race, Cruz is statistically tied with the tycoon in a two-man contest. It’s true that Cruz won’t get the entire Kasich vote just because the governor doesn’t campaign in the Hoosier State. But the non-aggression pact represents a good first step in Cruz’s effort to chip away at Trump’s lead.
Third, Kasich’s willingness to go along with Cruz seems revealing. Many have speculated that Kasich is in this thing for the vice presidency. Trump remains favored to win the nomination. Does Kasich hurt his prospects for getting the VP nod from Trump by “conspiring” with the billionaire’s arch-rival?
Possibly. Already, Trump, with his characteristic class and grace, has attacked Kasich for the way he eats.
However, Kasich’s best chance at the vice presidential nomination occurs in a scenario where Trump still needs delegates when the primary season ends. If by that point Trump has won 1,237 delegates, he has no need to bargain with Kasich (though he still might choose Kasich as his running mate given the governor’s strength in the head-to-head polls against Hillary and the importance of Ohio).
As noted above, the odds already are against Trump winning 1,237 delegates through the primary/caucuses/state conventions process. But the further away from 1,237 Trump is, the more leverage Kasich will have.
Hence the desirability of a non-aggression pact with Cruz.
Kasich has calculated that the benefit to him of keeping Trump as far away from 1,237 as possible outweighs the harm of alienating Trump. He is probably right. For Trump, this is mostly business, not personal.