Opinion writer
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks with reporters at the Republican National Committee spring meeting on Wednesday in Hollywood, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Cruz’s wipeout in the New York primary, while expected, nevertheless rattled many Republican insiders and activists who did not foresee the magnitude of the defeat. Is Cruz crumbling? Was Wisconsin an anomaly? The Cruz campaign set itself up, sending the candidate to campaign for days in New York and suggesting that Cruz could pick off congressional districts. He didn’t, and worse, came in third. Expectations should have been kept low. Really low.

Just as they recovered from New York, anti-Trump Republicans looked up to see a batch of polls from the states that will be voting on April 26. Trump is ahead by a healthy margin in all of them. Gulp. Trump is winning by 18 points in one California poll. According to another report, Cruz is tied in two Indiana polls and behind in one. Yikes.

Before Trump opponents started to light their hair on fire and close their checkbooks, a memo from Our Principles PAC tried to reassure donors that “Trump can will ALL of the committed delegates in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey . . .  AND win the large majority in Connecticut, Indiana and California . . .  AND win a plurality of delegates in Maryland, West Virginia, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico AND still fall short of the 1,237 threshold.” That’s a relief. Sort of.

Well, it is comforting for Trump foes to know that the math is forgiving. Cruz’s poor showing this week and next, along with disappointing results beyond that, won’t saddle the party with Trump. And yet, all those potential losses — some, very likely — don’t speak well of Cruz’s ability to unify the party at the convention or after it. Cruz is right to chastise Trump for ignoring the centrality of delegates in the nominating process. But he cannot forget about voters, whose lack of support will haunt him even if he manages to keep Trump from a first-ballot victory. Cruz’s situation is even more problematic when one considers that he will have to appeal to moderate voters in the general election.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump told supporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan that his campaign is "really, really rocking," after coming out ahead in New York's primary April 19. Rival Ted Cruz appeared to still be hopeful, telling Pennsylvania voters, "This is the year of the outsider. I'm an outsider." (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Cruz’s entire public persona was built around the image of a hard-charging, stridently conservative Republican who considered others in the party to be “squishy.” Now the “squishy” Republicans are voting for other candidates, not out of spite, but because Cruz did such a superb job of telling them that he wasn’t like them. “Ted Cruz is now reaping what he has sown,” says Henry Olsen, an expert on GOP politics. “He burst to national prominence because he was movement conservatism’s enfant terrible, destroying relationships and the legislative process in his pursuit of ‘pure’ conservatism.” He concludes, “Not surprisingly, moderates of all partisan and ideological stripes look askance at this — and it is their votes that keep John Kasich in the race and provide Donald Trump with his margin.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s ongoing presence in the race underscores Cruz’s difficulty attracting moderate and somewhat conservative voters. Kasich’s vote totals are a symptom, not a cause of Cruz’s problem. In New York, Cruz got a dreadful 10 percent of “somewhat conservative” voters and 13 percent of moderates. It is not all that certain Kasich voters would go for Cruz even if Kasich got out.

Other than urge these same Republicans to “unify” — they could unify under someone else’s banner — Cruz will need to explain why they should entrust their votes to him. That may require a detailed, mainstream conservative agenda or explanation as to how he will problem-solve once he is in the White House and no longer plotting with the Freedom Caucus.

Furthermore, Cruz has to convince voters that he can beat Hillary Clinton. He is actually within the margin of error in national polls. He would do well to remind voters of that at every opportunity. He might also start laying out the arguments he intends to use against her, showing how his biography (born into a working-class, immigrant family) and formidable rhetorical skills can force her to play defense.

Finally, he has to force Trump out of his comfort zone, to which he retreated after a series of embarrassing gaffes. Trump is avoiding hard-charging interviewers. He won’t agree to debate. He’s trying not to make as many outrageous remarks. His tone-deaf top campaign aide, Paul Manafort, now says Trump has been playing “a part.” All the bluster, the insults, the ignorance are just an act. If you believe that, then Trump has been conning voters just as he conned Trump University students. (Maybe Trump should give up the delegates he won when playing his “part,” since voters cast ballots for a mythical Trump.) Cruz would do well to call Trump out for hiding and for the jaw-dropping spin. He should dare him to debate and quiz him on which Trump is the real one.

In sum, Cruz’s main problem is not math. It is the difficulty he is having getting the party to unify behind him. Without solving that underlying issue, he will not pocket state victories necessary to develop the aura of a winner. While Cruz might keep Trump just short of 1,237 delegates before the convention, the delegates may feel very queasy picking someone who had multiple losses down the stretch. Delegates might not pick Trump, but with no one else looking like a winner, they just might go looking for someone who won’t struggle to unify his own party.