If this presidential election were a chess match, somebody like Sen. Ted Cruz would be calling checkmate on the Republican Party nomination about now. Instead, it’s checkers this year, and Donald Trump is winning because he knew that was the game being played.
What’s the difference? Chess is a game of strategy and subtlety and patience, and it takes a lifetime to master. Many people don’t understand it. Checkers is a simple, straightforward game that moves quickly and can be played decently by everyone. Republican voters this year didn’t want a practiced political master; they wanted someone who spoke their language and played their game. While Cruz and the other Republican candidates were staring at the chessboard and plotting their next moves, Trump was bouncing state to state around the checkerboard, reaching the back row, and shouting, “King me!”
The result is that he just kept winning states until, one by one, the others were forced to leave the board. He saw that Republican-leaning voters, particularly those who don’t usually vote, aren’t necessarily interested in typical Republican policies, so he didn’t offer them. Instead, he focused on issues those people talk about: immigration, political correctness, trade, and the failure of the political class to solve problems. His opponents followed a script while he was ad libbing, sometimes irresponsibly and sometimes by appealing to less than Americans’ best. Time and again, he said and did things that would have forced other candidates to offer a trembling apology. He didn’t bother. He had the good fortune of being the most outsider candidate in an outsider’s year, until his only remaining competition was the one candidate much of the party establishment dislikes more than he.
Cruz and most of the other 17 candidates who started this race looked at the wrong board from the beginning, starting with their early strategy of leaving Trump alone and attacking each other while they waited for him to fizzle. Cruz in particular played nice with Trump in hopes he would win over his voters later. He didn’t.
Still, despite Trump’s winning state after state, it looked for a while that he would not collect the required 1,237 delegates to sew up the nomination, resulting in a brokered Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The thinking was that at that point, party insiders would band against him, certain he would lose badly to Hillary Clinton and bring down the party with him.
So at the end, Cruz tried to play the delegate game, taking advantage of the party’s complicated rules to ensure delegates loyal to him attended the convention. If the race had gone to a second ballot, then those delegates could have switched to Cruz. Yes, he knocked over a few of Trump’s pieces. But again, wrong game.
The brokered convention scenario is now a memory. Trump dominated his home state of New York April 19. Then Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced they were forming an awkward alliance where Kasich wouldn’t compete in Indiana, where Cruz was stronger, while Cruz would stay out of Oregon and New Mexico, where Kasich seemed to have a chance. The move looked desperate, which is what Trump called it, and it played right into his hands at a time he already was telling voters the game is rigged. He went on to dominate five states April 26, bringing his total to 27, including Arkansas, compared to nine for Cruz and one for Kasich. Meanwhile, an NBC News poll showed Trump had reached the support of 50 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, a major milestone. Now that Trump has won Indiana, it’s over.
Trump is not my candidate – at all. But Republicans would have made a huge mistake if they had tried to keep him off the ticket at a contested convention. For all of their fears of a Trump candidacy, they could not afford an ugly convention that permanently alienates the voters he has energized.
In other words, he’s reached the back row, and they’re going to have to king him.
Related: Kasich – What should have been