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Eye On Candidates
February 29, 2016

Cruz, Sanders Face Tough Tests Tomorrow

Eleven states will hold nominating contests tomorrow, and while the stakes are large for every candidate, two in particular face challenges that could determine whether they have a viable path to their party’s nomination: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

For Sanders, a good showing and a couple of victories seem like necessities following a nearly 50-point drubbing in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Coming on the heels of his loss in the Nevada caucuses a week before, the race could slip away from Sanders following tomorrow’s results, according to Politico:

Bernie braces for decision day

Bernie Sanders’ campaign is desperately fighting to prove that Super Tuesday isn’t his final stand.

The outlook is grim: He likely needs comfortable wins in at least five states to realistically keep pace in the delegate hunt. Coming off a deflating loss in Nevada and a thorough pummeling in South Carolina, Sanders’ brain trust views March 1 as a swinging gate that could either reveal — or effectively close off — his path to the nomination….

Their best-case Super Tuesday scenario looks like this: Of the 11 states holding Democratic contests, Sanders wins Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma -- four states where he’s invested in television advertising. Then he blows out Clinton in Vermont, and keeps it close in Virginia. As long as Clinton’s margins of victory in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas – states with sizable African-American populations aren’t too overwhelming, he could march onto a trio of friendlier contests the following weekend with a credible case to make. His campaign could argue that Super Tuesday was a split decision, one that would still likely see him trailing Clinton in delegates, but not by an insurmountable margin, thanks to their proportional allocation.

An outcome along those lines would, according to the article, give Sanders an opportunity to notch several wins in Kansas, Maine, and Nebraska, which all hold caucuses the following weekend. Following those hoped-for wins (which would apparently come at the same time as a win for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Louisiana), Sanders could then go into the industrial Midwest states of Illinois Michigan, and Ohio held over the next 10 days and hope his anti-trade views would carry the day, or at least allow him to keep pace with Clinton in total delegates:

“There were two ways to win the nomination,” said Sanders’ chief strategist Tad Devine, likening the contest to 1984’s hard-fought primary. “The very quick route of winning Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada and then taking a shot at South Carolina, which was always going to be hard, [or], when that option didn’t become desirable, we decided we’re going to take a different route that goes all the way through California.”

It’s a longshot, particularly considering that polls in each of Sanders' March 1 target states are tight. But as long as Sanders' online fundraising juggernaut continues apace his candidacy is likely to keep rolling deep into March. And if Tuesday breaks his way, he believes, he could possibly last until July's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

“We are trying to win every delegate that we can, and not only are we fighting for Super Tuesday, we’re looking ahead to California, the largest state of all, New York state, we think we’re going to do well in Michigan,” Sanders himself insisted on Meet The Press Sunday, trying to break from the shadow of South Carolina by invoking states that vote in June, April and March, respectively.

Even a poor showing Tuesday wouldn’t be the end of the Sanders campaign, however, because he has the luxury of being an extraordinarily well-funded underdog locked into a two-person race. The other candidate facing crunch time this Tuesday isn’t so fortunate, as the Cruz strategy has relied for a long time on winning most of the Southern states voting tomorrow and doing well elsewhere as well. As Roll Call reports, that seems unlikely to happen, and Cruz faces a near-impossible path to the nomination without success tomorrow:

Cruz’s strategy was and is based on becoming “the” surviving conservative (and evangelical) candidate in the race. His victory in Iowa seemed to validate that strategy, especially since the Texas senator (27.6 percent), [Donald] Trump (24.3 percent) and Marco Rubio (23.1 percent) distanced themselves so much from the rest of the field.

But Cruz’s relatively weak third-place showing in South Carolina, even after social conservatives Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal had exited the race, raises questions about the Texan’s appeal, as does polling that shows Trump performing well in many of the March 1 primaries that Cruz had once expected to sweep.

Cruz can receive a jolt of delegates from Texas and other Southern states on Tuesday, but unless he has established himself as the conservative alternative to Trump, the Texan is toast because nine of the 12 states with the largest percentage of self-identified conservatives (according to Gallup), will have selected their delegates by March 8.

Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma have March 1 contests, Kentucky and Louisiana are March 5, Mississippi and Idaho are March 8, and South Carolina held its primary last week. Since North Dakota will be sending unpledged delegates to Cleveland, that leaves only Utah (March 22), Wyoming (April 9) and Montana (June 7) as the most conservative states to select delegates after March 8.

So, Cruz will soon be running in less religious, more pragmatic territory – places where his Texas twang, social conservatism and uncompromising approach are less likely to resonate.

Cruz could still have a path to the nomination if, for example, both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich do so poorly tomorrow that they are forced to exit the race or are widely seen as unviable. But given that the post-Super Tuesday political terrain looks somewhat friendlier to those two and their campaign strategies aren’t reliant on winning several of the contests tomorrow, it looks like no candidate has more riding on the outcome Tuesday than Cruz.

Both Cruz and Sanders have done much better than most thought they would when they first entered the race last spring, emerging among the top contenders for their parties’ nominations. But tomorrow could effectively end the chances of both.