Ted Cruz's plan to win the Republican presidential nomination depended on winning on Super Tuesday, and winning big, by consolidating the support of evangelicals, "very conservative" voters, and the scattered remnants of Ron Paul's libertarian revolution.
That didn't happen. He notched a solid win in his home state, and further victories in Oklahoma and Alaska. But he lost every state south of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi — plus Arkansas — to Donald Trump.
So why do Ted Cruz's chances of being on the Republican ticket keep getting better?
Let's game out the possibilities of what happens in the race from here.
Trump wins the nomination
The first, most likely possibility is that nobody stops Trump. Between now and March 15, he wins at least Louisiana, Maine, Kentucky, Hawaii, Michigan, and Mississippi. Then, on March 15, he wins at least North Carolina, Missouri, and Illinois. Maybe he loses Kansas to Cruz; maybe he loses Ohio to Kasich; maybe he loses Florida to Rubio. But even in that eventuality, Trump will have won at least 20 out of 28 states, and will have an insurmountable delegate lead.
Then he should pad that lead further with wins in Arizona, Wisconsin, New York, etc., which would leave him favored to win California, and come to the convention with a majority. Heck, even if he barely misses a majority, whoever the nominee is will have to have his blessing. And I suspect there's only one nominee who could get that — himself.
In this scenario, where Trump is clearly going to get the nomination, who might carry on the fight to Cleveland for some purpose beyond spite?
Only Ted Cruz —because he's positioned as a conviction candidate (the one true keeper of the constitutional conservative flame), because he'll have demonstrated the ability to win at least occasionally outside of his home state, and because he's not dependent on establishment support to continue (and so won't have to worry about funding drying up if the establishment decides to make peace with the inevitable).
Cruz could fight to the end, picking up delegates in states that divide them proportionally (Utah, New York, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico), and roll into Cleveland with the largest klatch of non-Trump delegates and a legitimate claim to represent the faction of the party — "very conservative" voters — whom Trump most needs to mollify.
And what better way to mollify them than by putting Ted on the ticket?
Sure, Trump repeatedly called him "Lyin' Ted" at last night's debate. Sure, Trump has said Cruz would be a terrible president because nobody gets along with him. But pay no attention to that kind of talk. Only weeks before, Trump said he really liked Cruz — and Cruz said much the same about him.
Moreover, picking Cruz would do nothing to undermine Trump's brand as an insurgent running against the idiots running the GOP — because Cruz is also an insurgent, albeit he prefers to call the GOP leadership traitors rather than idiots.
Finally, Trump really does have to worry about the possibility that establishment donors will bankroll a third-party candidacy by a movement conservative. The best way to forestall that option would be to pick the most uncompromising right-winger of all as his running mate. Conservative voters might bolt a Trump-led ticket for the Constitution Party or some other fringe figure. But Cruz could prevent those defections. Or so he'd claim.
A brokered convention with Trump the delegate-leader
Now, let's change the scenario, and assume that "divide and survive" actually works, and each non-Trump candidate outperforms in his respective strongholds while Trump falters badly in the face of a brutal wave of attack ads. Cruz wins Kansas, and, in a surprise, nabs Kentucky, which helps him take Missouri. Rubio wins Hawaii and Idaho, and then Michigan splits four ways to let Rubio squeak out a win there, which he follows up by winning Florida. Kasich, meanwhile, wins not only Ohio but also Illinois, the two largest Midwestern prizes, leaving Trump to win only Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, and (barely) North Carolina. Suddenly, Trump's odds of getting to a majority look surprisingly long.
Unfortunately, everybody else's odds look even longer. Trump will have started out with a lead, and with his dedicated base of support, he would be unlikely to collapse completely. You'd expect him to continue to gain delegates, and even win favorable states like New York and New Jersey, so long as he was still at all viable. And with four candidates notching wins, all of them would have an incentive to fight on to the convention, so none of them would haul in enough to take the lead from him.
Of the four non-Trump candidates, meanwhile, it's likely Cruz would have had by far the most wins, as well as the most delegates, by March 15. And the remainder of the calendar wouldn't look any less congenial to him than to Rubio or Kasich, assuming Trump still had the whip hand in the Northeast. Heck, with a strong win record, in a multi-candidate race, Cruz would have a real shot at taking California (where he led in the last, now very-dated poll).
Regardless of whether he won that prize or not, coming into a contested convention, he'd have three very strong arguments to make for his inclusion on the ticket, no matter who's at the top.
First, he would have demonstrated national support for himself as the only trusted tribune of conservative voters, people the party simply can't afford to ignore.
Second, he and Trump together would have demonstrated the need for a ticket that reached outside the establishment; ignoring both of them in favor of a traditional ticket would risk a complete collapse in support for the party in the general election.
And, third... he could threaten that if he isn't offered the vice presidency, his delegates will vote for Trump on the second ballot. Which, depending on how the rest of the race plays out, might well be enough to put Trump over the top.
A brokered convention with Rubio as the delegate-leader
But let's go further. Let's assume neither Cruz nor Trump is the plurality winner — let's say, unlikely as it may seem right now, that Marco Rubio comes into the convention with a bare plurality of delegates, and wants to leverage those into the nomination. Who does Rubio need to placate, so he has a chance on the second ballot?
Not the GOP establishment. If Rubio's lost their support, he hasn't a prayer — the second ballot is going to go to somebody who didn't run at all. They should be able to deliver Kasich's delegates — and if Rubio has a plurality, then Kasich can't have many of those at all.
Not Trump. What does he have to offer — the VP slot? A cabinet post? A prime time speaking slot? Get serious.
Ted Cruz, on the other hand — him, he'd have something to offer. And if Cruz has a significant delegate haul, he'd have something very valuable to offer in exchange.
What if the party decides that Rubio isn't the best standard-bearer, given his performance in the primaries? They can't turn to someone who came in below Rubio in the rankings — that wouldn't make sense. But they could choose Mitt Romney, or some other eminence who declined to run.
Now, who would that person want to pick as VP? Well, if you're going to give the top slot to somebody who didn't even run, he'd be well-advised to pick somebody would could speak to the forces roiling the 2016 campaign. It's not going to be Trump. So... hey, Ted!
And, of course, if it wasn't Ted, he could always threaten to join Trump on an independent ticket. Or to make a third-party bid of his own, on the Constitution Party line or some such. It would be pretty foolish of the party to assume he wouldn't. After all, what have they done for him lately?
The price of loyalty in a time of rebellion
Rest assured, Ted Cruz has thought through all of the above scenarios. He knows that the Republican Party leadership hates him — many of them hate him even more than they hate Donald Trump. He knows that they don't trust him for a second.
And that gives him leverage.
A guy like Jeb Bush can't threaten to bolt the party or run with Trump with any credibility even if he were inclined to do so. Chris Christie is already facing calls for his resignation from major papers for having endorsed Trump — and Trump is still a legitimate candidate in the GOP primaries. Marco Rubio wouldn't even exist without massive support from the party establishment. So they have no leverage.
Not Ted Cruz. He doesn't owe the party anything — every delegate he got, he got on his own. His voters are primed to expect betrayal by the party establishment, and have already shown a willingness to believe Cruz if he says they are being betrayed. And his entire history in the Senate is one of refusing to take orders. If he makes threats, they are credible.
And as long as he keeps winning delegates, his leverage increases.
So why would he drop out of the race to pave the way for a more electable nominee?
Well, maybe if he were offered the vice presidency, he'd consider it.