Donald Trump is most likely to win the GOP nomination. But Ted Cruz definitely has a path to victory if he can win key contests.
Trump's current delegate lead over Cruz and John Kasich (Trump — 739, Cruz — 465, Kasich — 143) is more apparent than real. At some point, Marco Rubio is likely to endorse Cruz and release his delegates. Since the Rubio campaign was conceived in the womb of the establishment's anti-Trump initiative, his delegates are likely to go to the Texan en masse, giving Cruz 631 delegates, only 108 behind Trump.
If Cruz wins Wisconsin, he will take most of its 42 votes. And, if on April 9, his candidates prevail at the Colorado delegate selection caucus (no presidential primary or caucus in that state), he will get the bulk of the state's 37 delegates. That should cut Trump's lead to less than one hundred — perhaps seventy or so.
The Wisconsin win, which would be Cruz's first victory in a major northeastern industrial state, shows that as Trump's popularity among women declines, Cruz is in a position to pick up key victories.
Cruz can expect to lose the April 19 New York primary (95), the next in line, but proportional rules may allow Cruz and Kasich to win a third of the delegates.
After New York, Cruz will be competitive and get his share of the delegates in most of the remaining states: Connecticut (28), Maryland (38), Rhode Island (19), Indiana (57) and New Mexico (24). He will likely pick up Nebraska's 36 and Montana's 27 in their winner-take-all format, but he may lose New Jersey's 51 and Delaware's 16 winner-take-all delegates.
Then comes California with 172 delegates to be allocated proportionately under rules where the winner gets the vast bulk of the seats.
The latest poll by the L.A. Times shows Trump only one point ahead in California, T-36, C-35, K-14. In March, Trump's lead has dwindled from 11 to five to one. Cruz is catching up fast. If he can keep growing, he will win a large share of the state's 172 votes.
At the convention, Pennsylvania and North Dakota could make the difference. While the GOP binds its superdelegates, unlike the Democrats, to vote proportionately as their state has voted, the delegates from Pennsylvania (71) and North Dakota (28) are free to vote as they wish.
In all, it appears unlikely that Trump will win a first ballot majority. With Rubio's support, Cruz will may well come within a hundred votes of Trump, setting up a second ballot.
Then, Cruz may have an ace in the hole since he has moved in skillfully behind the primaries that have already been held to get as many second ballot delegates as possible. In many states — like South Carolina — delegates are not selected in the primaries, but rather at subsequent caucuses. If Cruz can fill the seats with delegates favorable to him, they can switch on the second ballot having satisfied their legal obligations by backing Trump on the first ballot.
At some point, Kasich must realize he has no hope. The fundamental fact is that most Cruz delegates, if released, would probably go to Trump rather than Kasich and most Trump delegates would back the Texan rather than the Ohio governor. The basic establishment/anti-establishment fault line still has Trump and Cruz on one side and Kasich on the other.
So Cruz may be in good shape to win on the second ballot — if he can win in Wisconsin and repeat his victories in other northeastern states.