Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who had spent the month since his home-state win boxed out of the presidential primary, celebrated a curious sort of win on Tuesday: a second-place showing in New York. Within two hours of the polls closing, Kasich had decisively pushed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) into third place statewide. In a handful of congressional districts, Kasich was holding Donald Trump below the 50 percent threshold, meaning he would earn pledged delegates for the first time in 34 days; Cruz was heading for a wipeout.
By any normal standard, Trump was the winner — by a landslide. But a few hours earlier, Kasich was telling voters in Maryland — which votes in one week — that everything was going according to plan. A questioner at an Annapolis town hall meeting, one of 600 people who saw Kasich on Tuesday evening, asked how Kasich could overcome his delegate deficit. Didn't a candidate need to win eight states before the party rules let him compete?
"Even if they create rules, it doesn't really matter," said Kasich. "Nobody's going to get enough delegates. I mean, the Trump organization is complaining all the time about this and that. You know why? Because they know they won't have enough delegates to win on the first ballot, and then we're going to be deadlocked."
As Cruz has grasped for the #NeverTrump scepter, he has argued that he's only candidate who can defeat Trump outright before the end of the primaries. Kasich has argued that neither he nor Cruz can pull it off. The New York result was not so much a triumph for Kasich as for his argument, that Cruz would be unable to clinch the nomination if he was blown out in the late April primaries across the Northeast.
"We defeated Cruz soundly after he was supposed to have momentum," said Kasich strategist John Weaver after the New York results rolled in. "We will defeat him next week as well, as his brand of divisive politics has left him in a narrow lane."
In Wisconsin, where Kasich tumbled below his poll numbers, he had to contend with a #NeverTrump movement coalescing around Cruz, and the pro-Cruz Club for Growth even running ads against him. There was none of that in New York, and Kasich benefited. In exit polls, 39 percent of voters who decided in the final few days broke for Kasich. Twenty-four percent of voters said that Kasich was the most electable candidate, actually an improvement from Wisconsin. And while just 27 percent of Republican voters said the party should nominate "the best candidate" over the delegate leader in a contested convention, that subgroup broke for Kasich by 32 points.
In Maryland, where polling has suggested a more competitive race among Trump, Kasich and Cruz, there's some openness to Kasich's theory of the race. Boyds resident Nick Kalargyros, 52, an IT consultant and registered Democrat, said Kasich is his preferred candidate, regardless of party. “I’m feeling him out, but I think he’s the only candidate that I trust and that I would probably vote for,” he said. “I’m here to make up my mind. I’m a Democrat, but he’s giving me a good alternative choice. Right now, it’s between Hillary and John for me.”
Kalargyros said he is resigned to the existing nomination system, despite recent frustrations among Trump and Sanders supporters over delegates ignoring the popular vote when they choose a candidate.
“Right now, it’s how the system works,” he said. “They should play by the rules at this point, and then we should have discussions about whether it makes sense to change it.”
Cliff Myers, a 58-year-old insurance underwriter from Annapolis, said all the candidates should have known the rules before entering the nominating contest.
“That was the deck when they all started the race,” he said. “It strikes me as a little bit of sour grapes that things haven’t come as some people would like. Kasich knows what the rules are, and I hope he can rise as the adult in the room when the convention comes.”
Arnold resident Beth Hymas, a 29-year-old makeup artist and registered Republican, said she wanted Kasich to win the nomination, regardless of whether it is by popular vote or a brokered convention.
“Of all the candidates, he’s the most qualified to be president,” she said. “Anything that would help him get the nomination would be a good thing.”
Kasich was hoping that New York would alter the narrative just enough to encourage voters like them — and to peel strategic anti-Trump voters away from Cruz. He campaigned more extensively than either of his rivals, and was first up with TV ads, one of them knocking Cruz for demeaning "New York values" as liberal. As a result, he was on the cusp of holding Trump below 50 percent in the 5th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 20th and 24th congressional districts, earning six delegates. In the 12th District, which includes east Manhattan and the Trump Tower, Kasich was less than 200 votes from defeating Trump outright.
Cruz, who frequently left the New York campaign trail for successful delegate-hunting trips in convention states, ended up leading Kasich in just two districts. In the 9th District, where Cruz campaigned for Orthodox Jewish votes and held a widely covered Matzoh-rolling event, he hit 25 percent — his highest number in the city. In the 15th District, a section of the Bronx where both Cruz and Kasich campaigned for the small number of Republican votes, Cruz won out again. But Trump easily cleared 50 percent of the vote in both districts, shutting out Kasich and Cruz.
In doing so, Trump came closer to confirming one of Kasich's favorite arguments. Two weeks ago, at one of his first New York stops, Kasich told the small posse of reporters trailing him that it was "mathematically impossible" for either him or Cruz to beat Trump in pledged delegates. Two weekend conventions followed. Cruz claimed 18 new delegates out of North Dakota and 14 out of Wyoming, telling audiences that he was rolling over Trump. On Tuesday night, facing a bigger bank of cameras than ever follows Kasich, Trump couldn't resist bragging.
“Senator Cruz is just about mathematically eliminated," said Trump.