He could give the Nazi salute on national TV. He could dangle a baby from a window. He could polish his yacht with the American flag. Seemingly nothing can weaken the devotion of Donald Trump's voter base—to the endless frustration of chief rival, Ted Cruz, whose data operation has been intensely focused on amassing enough voters to match the army of Trumpites.
Despite months of efforts to target likely voters and win them over to his campaign, Cruz has had difficulty converting die-hard Trump supporters. Even after Trump drew fire for projecting a negative attitude toward women, his female supporters remain committed to their candidate. He angered many by saying women should be punished for having an abortion if it becomes illegal (he soon took that statement back, saying he misspoke). He threatened to "spill the beans" on Heidi Cruz after a Cruz-supporting PAC released a semi-nude photo of Melania Trump. His campaign manager has been charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly manhandling a female reporter. As the billionaire himself said, he could probably shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and not lose a single one of his supporters.
At this point, the Cruz camp has lost much of its hope of swaying any of the faithful; the campaign's data scientists are working overtime to locate and seduce new supporters from other groups to match Trump’s immovable base. Cruz appears to have found enough of them the get a win in Wisconsin, but he'll have a much harder time of it two weeks from now in New York.
But, according to a high-level source within the Cruz campaign, that’s not the whole story. If the Trump voter block isn't shrinking, it doesn't seem to be expanding much either. "We have always said that Trump is a high-floor, low-ceiling campaign, and that’s proving to be more and more true," the insider tells Fast Company.
The Trump hard core probably will not be enough to beat Cruz in Wisconsin, a race some say could be a turning point for Cruz.
The Real Clear Politics poll average has Cruz leading in Wisconsin with 39%, Trump behind him with 34.95%, and Kasich trailing with 19.4%. However, the Cruz campaign is using the , which currently (as of March 30) has Cruz at 40%, Trump at 30%, and Kasich at 17%. The winner in Wisconsin will take the majority of the state’s 42 delegates.
While Trump’s block of supporters has remained the same since February, the Cruz campaign says it has pulled in new voters from a variety of demographic and psychographic groups.
"We’re finding them everywhere," says the Cruz campaign official. The campaign is now in control of all categories of evangelicals, including ones that attend church every Sunday, to the ones who go infrequently, and everybody in between. Our source says the term "evangelicals" is somewhat misleading because it refers only to churchgoing people, at least where voter modeling is concerned.
The Cruz campaign looks at voters as they fit into a four-quadrant box, including high income-high education, high income-low education, low education-high income, and low income-low education. Our inside source says Cruz is winning more new voters than Trump in all sectors except the low income-low education quadrant, where Trump has consistently excelled. Cruz is also picking up more strongly conservative voters.
Trump's disparaging remarks about women may not be making much of a dent in his support nationwide but they have helped Cruz in Wisconsin, our source said. "We have been able to go out and build a much broader coalition."
The Cruz camp is saying it might have actually benefited from its embarrassing social media tussle concerning the two candidates’ wives. It pulled Heidi Cruz from relative obscurity into the bright lights of the campaign. "It caused a focus of attention on Heidi Cruz," the source said. "It was understood what a huge asset to her husband she is."
Cruz's success in Wisconsin won't be easily duplicated in the April 19 primary in New York, in which 95 delegates are at stake. The big question is whether or not the Cruz campaign can make up as much ground in New York as it did in Wisconsin in the weeks leading up to the election. It looks very doubtful.
Let’s look at those Wisconsin polling numbers again. In the Marquette Law School poll from February 25, Cruz had only 19% of the vote while Trump had the same 30% he's had in the most recent results. Cruz picked up 11 points in a little more than a month. Kasich's support has also grown, moving from 8% of the vote to 17%. (Candidates who have since dropped out accounted for the other 31% in the February 25 poll.)
Right now, Trump has a commanding lead with 53.3% of voters (again in the RCP average of polls) versus 21.3% for Kasich and just 19% for Cruz. If you believe that theory that Cruz is able to pick up voters everyplace except from the Trump base, it still won't be enough. There just aren't big enough voter pools for Cruz to draw on to match Trump. Even he took all of Kasich's votes, it still wouldn't be enough.
The Cruz operative stressed that his campaign is not motivated by the idea of saving the Republican Party from a Trump nomination. It remains focused on carefully targeting and winning voters that might be most receptive to the Cruz message.
That’s why the Cruz camp is spending most of its ad dollars lately on ads attacking Kasich. The ads accuse Kasich of giving sweetheart deals to an Ohio steel company that contributed to his PAC. Cruz has been calling Kasich a "spoiler" candidate, and calling for him to drop out of the race. Cruz needs the votes of Kasich supporters badly, and, the Cruz people argue, he has a far better chance of attracting them than Trump. Kasich supporters more like Cruz supporters, demographically and ideologically.
When Marco Rubio exited the race, his supporters distributed themselves across the conservative spectrum. "In March, our models showed that our voters equally distributed among Kasich, Cruz and Trump," said Scott Tranter of Optimus, who led the Rubio campaign’s data and analytics team.
Rubio was closer to the center of that spectrum than Kasich, who is closer to Cruz on the far right.
Today Trump leads Cruz in the delegate count 737 to 475, with 1,237 needed to win. If there’s any hopeful news for the Cruz campaign after Wisconsin, it’s the number of large primaries that are both closed (Cruz does better in these only-Republicans-can-vote contests) and winner-take-all.
If the candidate can win a significant number of those, a path to the nomination might start to emerge. But many close observers are now saying the GOP contest won't be decided until the yuuuuge (172-delegate) California primary in early June, if it's decided during primary season at all. California is the final GOP primary; next stop would be a contested convention in Cleveland this summer.