Will: Ted Cruz is surging by design
"It's not the will to win that matters. ... It's the will to prepare to win that matters."
– Paul "Bear" Bryant
HOUSTON – People here at Ted Cruz's campaign headquarters are meticulously preparing to win a contested convention, if there is one. Because Donald Trump is a low-energy fellow, Cruz will be positioned to trounce him in Cleveland, where Trump's slide toward earned oblivion would accelerate during a second ballot.
Wisconsin has propelled Trump, a virtuoso of contempt, toward joining those he most despises: "losers." In the 1992 general election, Ross Perot, a Trump precursor, won 21.5 percent of Wisconsin's vote, above the 18.9 percent he won nationally. Wisconsin's populist tradition is persistent and indiscriminate enough to encompass Robert La Follette and Joseph McCarthy. And evangelical Christians are less important in Wisconsin than in contiguous Iowa. Nevertheless, temperate Wisconsin rejected Trump, partly for the reason that one of his weakest performances so far was in the reddest state, Utah, where conservative Mormons flinched from his luridness. His act — ignorance slathered with a congealed gravy of arrogance — has become stale.
If, as seemed probable a month ago, Trump had won Wisconsin, he would have been well-positioned to win a first-ballot convention victory. Now he is up against things to which he is averse: facts. For months Cruz's national operation has been courting all convention delegates, including Trump's. Cruz aims to make a third ballot decisive, or unnecessary.
On the eve of Wisconsin's primary, the analytics people here knew how many undecided voters were choosing between Cruz and Trump (32,000) and how many between Cruz and John Kasich (72,000), and where they lived. Walls here are covered with notes outlining every step of each state's multistage delegate selection process. (Cruz's campaign was active in Michigan when the process of selecting persons eligible to be delegates began in August 2014.) Cruz's campaign is nurturing relationships with delegates now committed to Trump and others. In Louisiana's primary, 58.6 percent of voters favored someone other than Trump; Cruz's campaign knows which issues are particularly important to which Trump delegates, and Cruz people with similar values are talking to them.
Trump, whose scant regard for (other people's) property rights is writ large in his adoration of eminent domain abuses, mutters darkly about people "stealing" delegates that are his property. But most are only contingently his, until one or more ballots are completed.
Usually, more than 40 percent of delegates to Republican conventions are seasoned activists who have attended prior conventions. A large majority of all delegates are officeholders — county commissioners, city council members, sheriffs, etc. — and state party officials. They tend to favor presidential aspirants who have been Republicans for longer than since last Friday.
Trump is a world-class complainer (he is never being treated "fairly") but a bush league preparer. A nomination contest poses policy and process tests, and he is flunking both.
Regarding policy, he is flummoxed by predictable abortion questions because he has been pro-life for only 15 minutes, and because he has lived almost seven decades without giving a scintilla of thought to any serious policy question. Regarding process, Trump, who recently took a week-long vacation from campaigning, has surfed a wave of free media to the mistaken conclusion that winning a nomination involves no more forethought than he gives to policy. He thinks he can fly in, stroke a crowd's ideological erogenous zones, then fly away. He knows nothing about the art of the political deal.
The nomination process, says Jeff Roe, Cruz's campaign manager, "is a multilevel Rubik's Cube. Trump thought it was a golf ball — you just had to whack it." Roe says the Cruz campaign's engagement with the granular details of delegate maintenance is producing a situation where "the guy who is trying to hijack the party runs into a guy with a machine gun."
Trump, the perpetually whining "winner," last won something on March 22, in Arizona. Trump, says Roe, is now "bound by his brand rather than propelled by his brand." If Trump comes to Cleveland, say, 38 delegates short of 1,237, he will lose. Cruz probably will be proportionally closer to Trump than Lincoln (102 delegates) was to William Seward (173.5) who was 60 delegates short of victory on the first of three ballots at the 1860 convention.
Cruz's detractors say he has been lucky in this campaign's unpredictable political caroms that thinned the competition. But as Branch Rickey — like Coach Bryant, a sportsman-aphorist — said: "Luck is the residue of design."
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.