Kasich the kingmaker

Matt Grossmann

Donald Trump handily won the Michigan Republican primary, but this weekend’s party convention determined the actual delegates who will vote on Michigan’s behalf at the national convention.

The state not only elected Trump supporters to 25 delegate slots, it showed how Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign could help put Trump over the top.

To win the nomination, Trump needs votes from a majority of delegates (1,237) at the national convention in July. Trump still has a chance to amass that support from delegates allocated in remaining primaries, but he will likely fall short. The key question is how close Trump has to come to a majority of pledged delegates (where votes are allocated mostly based on primary results) to avoid losing the nomination on subsequent ballots (when more delegates will be able to vote their personal preference).

In a close race, the biggest source of available votes will be delegates pledged to Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Other than his home state of Ohio, Kasich’s 17 Michigan delegates are his biggest haul.

Trump’s real competition for the nomination is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has not only amassed the second-most pledged delegates, but had a great weekend influencing delegate selection processes in other states. It now looks likely that Cruz will have support among many unpledged delegates as well as second-ballot support from delegates pledged to Trump (in Iowa, Indiana and North Carolina).

But Cruz did not make such inroads in Michigan. Cruz delegates lost all convention committee elections — and how they lost is even more important. Cruz delegates were shut out because supporters of Trump and Kasich allied to elect their own joint slate of candidates. Kasich has almost no chance of winning the Republican nomination, but his campaign could play an important role in swinging support to Trump or Cruz. If their Michigan alliance is representative, it is a bad omen for Cruz.

Kasich and Rubio operatives have not had to choose between Trump and Cruz. But they’ll need to make that choice eventually, so any sign of their leaning is telling. They will likely decide whether to support Trump as the leader in votes and delegates or Cruz as the second option with less popular support. If other candidates’ delegates consider the fairness of the national process or the winner of their state, rather than their personal candidate preference, Trump may be advantaged.

At the Michigan convention, Republican Party leaders said they wanted delegates to represent the will of the state’s voters. Kasich delegates, in explaining their decision to ally with Trump, also voiced concern about the Cruz campaign acting to subvert the will of voters. If Kasich supporters and party leaders are concerned about faithfulness to election results now, they may be more likely to side with Trump at the national convention even if he lacks a majority of pledged delegates.

Would Kasich help Trump? He may already be doing so, if inadvertently. The Kasich campaign is currently running negative ads against Cruz in New York. Most projected paths to a Trump nomination involve Kasich cutting into Cruz support in states like Indiana and California.

The Republican nomination is now a zero-sum game between Cruz and Trump. Any anti-Cruz action helps Trump and vice versa. Wishful thinking by Kasich delegates may be postponing their decisions about their second choice, but their primary role at the convention could be helping to play kingmaker between Cruz and Trump. Their leanings remain unclear, but Michigan brought an important sign that they may not be opposed to allying with Trump.

Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.