Watching the Republican establishment trying to decide between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is like watching Barack Obama trying to choose between Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State. But as John Kasich and Marco Rubio recede from plausibility, it appears that mainstream GOP leaders are beginning to decide that the type of McGovern-esque landslide defeat that Mr. Cruz is likely to suffer is preferable to a full-out hostile takeover by Mr. Trump.
To put it slightly differently, traditional Republicans may not know how to defeat Mr. Cruz and his followers, but they’re familiar with the dynamic of facing implacable grass-roots conservative insurgents. Mr. Trump’s followers represent a novel challenge, and the lack of known antecedent makes it more frightening. Either option represents a worst-case scenario that is only days away. For Mr. Rubio and Mr. Kasich, the time of moral victories is over. Starting next Tuesday, the only way to win is to finish first.
Both men are preparing for their last stands in their respective home states. Bernie Sanders’s upset win in Michigan reminds us that primary elections are fertile ground for the improbable. At this point, however, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Rubio face uphill fights. Tuesday will be a binary night for each: Win his home state and keep going, or lose his home state and stay there.
If Mr. Trump wins both Ohio and Florida, it will be almost impossible for his opponents to keep him from enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination. If Mr. Rubio and/or Mr. Cruz is successful, then all four candidates continue down the primary trail, and the chances of a contested convention grow considerably.
Without trying to predict outcomes in Ohio or Florida, it is worth taking a moment to look at this week’s results. John Kasich, who said just weeks ago that he needed to win Michigan to stay in the race, finished third in a state that adjoins his own and shares numerous economic, demographic, and cultural similarities. Mr. Rubio has finished a distant last in almost all of the most recent primaries, not even breaking the threshold for securing any delegates. And Mr. Cruz, with victories in Idaho on Tuesday night and in Kansas and Maine over the weekend as well as strong second-place finishes in a number of other states, now appears to be the best situated of Mr. Trump’s remaining opponents.
Given the presumed ceiling on Mr. Trump’s popular support and the increasing sums of independent money being spent against him, there is still a small window of opportunity for Mr. Kasich or Mr. Rubio to carry the establishment banner forward. But every day, the reckoning of the GOP’s political “Sophie’s Choice” draws closer.
Dan Schnur is director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics and was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.