Ben Boychuk

Cruz knows how to play politics better than Trump

Sen. Ted Cruz poses for pictures with supporters after a rally in Irvine on Monday, April 11, 2016. Ben Boychuk says the Cruz campaign is far more organized than Donald Trump’s for California’s presidential primary in June.
Sen. Ted Cruz poses for pictures with supporters after a rally in Irvine on Monday, April 11, 2016. Ben Boychuk says the Cruz campaign is far more organized than Donald Trump’s for California’s presidential primary in June. Los Angeles Times

Well, this is thrilling. California will matter in the outcome of the Republican presidential race this year.

It’s coming down to a titanic fight between Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich acting as spoiler. I can’t remember the last time that happened, certainly not in my voting lifetime.

Usually, I’ve had to settle for voting for the guy who dropped out three months earlier because the remaining candidates were too repugnant or too squishy or simply too assured of victory. Chalk it up to bad timing.

It’s exciting – and, well, a little bit embarrassing. In February, I chucked my Republican Party registration in disgust, choosing to join the swelling ranks of voters without a party preference. My timing was off, again.

The trouble is, the California GOP runs a closed primary. Now I may have to re-re-register as a Republican by May 23 so I can vote against Trump in June.

My vote will likely matter about as much as it always has, however, which is not very much at all. I happen to live in a congressional district where Democrats have a slight voter registration advantage. Republicans are competitive in theory and incompetent in practice. That gives Trump the advantage.

But to be a Republican in San Francisco right now. Or East Los Angeles, or Compton.

California’s primary is winner-take-all by the 53 congressional districts for 159 of the state’s 172 delegates. So some will be awarded in parts of the state where Republicans are about as common as unicorns.

This week, forecaster extraordinaire Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com took a look at Trump’s path to the nomination through the Golden State. “Given California’s political and demographic diversity,” he wrote, “it’s not wrong to think of the state as consisting of 53 micro-primaries.”

Silver, for what it’s worth, projects Trump will snag somewhere between 88 and 94 delegates toward the increasingly elusive 1,237 he needs to secure the nomination on the first ballot.

But I wouldn’t be so sure.

Trump hired a state political director only this week. Trump’s man, Tim Clark, said Tuesday, “Mr. Trump is going to play and play hard in California.”

Play, or get played?

Say what you will about Cruz, but his campaign is unusually adept at working the process. He was drumming up delegates in Petaluma, Santa Monica and other places months before Trump was even thinking about bringing his clown show here.

If there’s one thing Cruz knows, it’s data mining. He took plenty of guff in January for some mailers his campaign sent to would-be caucusgoers in Iowa with alarming labels announcing “ELECTION ALERT: VOTER VIOLATION” and “FURTHER ACTION NEEDED.”

“You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area,” the mailer read. “Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record.”

The stunt may have put off more voters than it won over, but in the end Cruz took Iowa because his operation knew where to find the votes. Cruz denied Trump all 34 delegates in Colorado because his campaign understood the process. All Trump and his supporters could do was cry and complain.

Cruz is following the same playbook in California. He already has a complete slate of 169 delegates and 169 alternates. Trump has until May 7 to turn in his list. Good luck with that.

The Republican fight for the presidency in 2016 isn’t merely about a clash of competing visions – restoring constitutional government vs. “making America great again.”

It’s about politics, down and dirty. Trump talks and talks and talks. Cruz talks and acts. That might not be enough to win the nomination, but his effort won’t be an embarrassment.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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