WASHINGTON – The Republican nomination race has three more stages to go, and each of the three candidates left in it is concentrating on a different one.
First, the candidates have to win votes in the remaining contests to maximize the number of delegates bound to them on the first ballot. Second, they have to prevail in selecting delegates: making sure that their bound delegates stay with them on subsequent ballots should any occur, and that unbound delegates side with them. Third, they need to get delegates who are not with them to like them, so that they might vote for them on later ballots.
Donald Trump has so far put all his effort into the first step. In part that’s because he has been unwilling to spend money to build an organization, which he would have needed to compete in stages two and three. But while he has done well in the primaries, he has not done well enough to dispense with wrangling delegates. It is now very late for him to begin.
Actually, he has done worse than not compete in parts two and three: He has conducted himself in a way that makes these tasks harder. His attacks on the other candidates have surely alienated many delegates. Ditto for the not-so-veiled threats some of his allies are making against delegates who oppose him.
Trump has intermittently been said to consider acting more “presidential.” He is now reportedly planning to give a series of speeches on policy issues, for example, something normal presidential campaigns do from the outset. Many Republicans will welcome the change of style. But this isn’t the same thing as courting segments of the party from outside his existing fan base.
Trump should probably just double down on his existing strategy: winning bound delegates on the first ballot. In particular, he should make a big push for primary votes and delegates in California’s June 7 primary. But maximizing his vote in that gigantic state would require spending more money than he has previously been willing to part with.
Ted Cruz has not neglected any of the three tasks in the contest. He has excelled at the second, as Trump has been belatedly learning. The Texas senator (who is a friend of mine) seems to be doing well at the third, too.
Cruz’s big test will be in showing major improvement between the first and second ballots, assuming there is a second. Otherwise he runs the risk that a majority of delegates will decide they don’t love him and don’t need him to dispose of Trump, and these sentiments will combine to create the self-fulfilling impression that he’s not going anywhere. But Cruz’s methodical campaign is almost certainly planning for this contingency among others.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has to hope the balloting continues past two rounds. His strategy rests on converting delegates on later ballots. This week Kasich got a double assist from Paul Ryan. Kasich’s chances are sufficiently slim that he was effectively competing with the House speaker. With Ryan having ruled himself out as a nominee, Kasich is very nearly the only plausible champion for Republicans who don’t want Trump or Cruz.
In ruling himself out, Ryan also said that the nominee should be someone who had run in the primaries — indeed, that the convention should adopt a rule to that effect. Kasich needs the delegates to take a similar view. He can’t have them turning to Mitt Romney as a white knight.
Further, the Ohio governor needs them to feel wholly unconstrained in their choice among the people who were in the race: These candidates ran, none of them won a majority, and in those crucial respects they’re alike. Finally, he needs the delegates to decide among the candidates on the basis of electability.
The electability argument, which Kasich is making now, rarely works with primary voters. The delegates might put more weight on it: A lot of them will be people who want to protect their local congressman or state legislator from losing because of a Democratic presidential landslide in the general election. (Some of them will be state legislators.)
The electability case against Trump is pretty simple: The polls show that he is very unpopular and that Hillary Clinton has a big lead over him. It isn’t as easy to use this argument against Cruz, since Cruz’s poll numbers against her aren’t terrible. But Kasich can argue that Clinton will find enough material in Cruz’s record and positions to render them terrible by November.
It’s possible, of course, that none of these three strategies gets a majority of delegates for any of the three candidates. In that case, two of them might just make a deal — something that, I hear, one of them is pretty good at.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.