On Wednesday afternoon, after she heard Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) speak to nearly a thousand of her peers at a truck factory in the Chicago suburbs, Elaine Brown wondered if she could vote for him.
"He had the decency to try and turn the debate away from all the nonsense they were talking about," said Brown, 79. "Can he beat Trump? I hear that Cruz is beating Trump, according to the states so far."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is certainly trying to leave that impression. In Florida, Wednesday and Thursday, he has rolled out endorsements and hinted that the presence of Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is all that's stopping him from a one-on-one contest where he can defeat Donald Trump. In recent days, as some long-awaited attacks on Trump pushed up his negatives, the front-runner has trailed in hypothetical head-to-heads against Cruz, Kasich and Rubio.
That's led to a campaign within the campaign — a confidence game, in which the non-Trump candidates argue that they deserve strategic votes, and Trump argues that he is too far ahead to lose. Trump's incessant recitations of his poll numbers can bore the people covering his campaigns. They are not designed for those people. They're designed to produce a bandwagon effect, where voters inclined to back a winner stick with the guy who's winning. And in statements Wednesday — Cruz in Florida, Kasich in Illinois, Rubio in Florida — all neatly laid out their current spin.
Cruz: "Donald Trump has a hard ceiling of 35 percent that he can’t get above."
That's not quite true. Trump has bust the hypothetical 35 percent cap in 10 contests, and won more than 40 percent of the vote in six: Louisiana (41 percent), Hawaii (42 percent), Alabama (43 percent), Nevada (46 percent), Mississippi (47 percent), and Massachusetts (49 percent). Even in the polling that asks voters to choose in a Trump-or-Other race, Trump polls above 40 percent. But it's in Cruz's interest to ask voters if they want to be part of an anti-Trump coalition, and thereby choose the conservative candidate they have resisted.
Cruz: "The polls all said, and all the media reported, that Donald Trump was going to sweep Super Tuesday."
The hyperventilating nature of cable TV, in which campaigns are either unstoppable or collapsing, has set up Cruz's best underdog line. In his version of the primary, the press predicted Trump wins in "almost every state," and predicted Cruz debacles. "Many in the media doubt that we can win any given primary," he said.
Here, Cruz is trying to gain what the shocking failure of Ann Selzer's Iowa poll was supposed to give him — the mien of a giant-killer. In reality, close watchers of 2016 have seen some of his wins coming, and he has underperformed in a few key states. The idea that Cruz might lose his home state of Texas was played up, but backed by no polling whatsoever. (Cruz did overperform the polls there.)
Cruz said at his Florida news conference that "pundits" expected Trump to win Kansas's caucuses; some may have, but even the bettors at PredictIt said that Cruz would likely win a contest dominated by social conservative activists. Yet Cruz, for the first time, is benefiting from the expectations game that always seemed designed for Rubio.
Kasich: "If you look at the latest national poll, we’re about dead even: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and me."
The Ohio governor's new/only favorite poll is the Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey from this week. Specifically, he's a fan of a crosstab that collated the opinions of voters in states that had not yet held primaries. While Trump led with 36 percent support in states that already voted, the states yet to vote were split — Trump at 27 percent followed by Cruz at 25 percent, Kasich at 24 percent, and Rubio at 23 percent.
Cruz, in rattling off his state wins, is referring to a very friendly map of caucus and southern states. Kasich, in asking voters to think ahead, is trying to convince voters in Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio — and perhaps some voters in later states like Wisconsin — that Cruz has tapped out his deepest well. In the Midwest and northeast, Kasich wants voters to consider him their anti-Trump.
Rubio: "Let’s suppose someone likes Ted Cruz or John Kasich for that matter. A vote for them is a vote for Trump, because I am the only one that has a chance of beating him in Florida. Everyone — they have to vote for me."
Rubio, like Kasich, has embraced the reality that it would be easier to prevent Trump from winning a majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention than to beat him outright. In Florida, specifically, Rubio has a confusing but convincing case to make.
First, a victory by Kasich or Cruz in Florida would require the sort of surge no one has seen in this primary — a surge to overcome early voting margins. As of Tuesday, 690,071 people had already voted in the Republican primary, more than voted for Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primary.
Second, the polling in Florida doesn't suggest a path for Cruz or Kasich to win Florida and its 99 delegates, awarded at large. Both Monmouth University and Suffolk University have found Cruz far behind, in third place, with early voters. Both have found Trump in the lead with voters who are waiting for March 15.