Bitter GOP presidential contest could spell exciting Indiana primary

Indiana political junkies who bemoan the state’s relatively late presidential primary election are in luck this year.

Observers say bitter discord in the Republican Party means there’s a decent chance the nominating contest still will be up for grabs by the time Hoosiers cast their votes on May 3.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz scored big wins in Kansas and Maine in last weekend’s primary contests, a shot in the arm for the chorus of Republicans who are desperately seeking a viable alternative to real estate mogul Donald Trump, the current front-runner who won in Kentucky and Louisiana on Saturday.

And while neither Florida Sen. Marco Rubio nor Ohio Gov. John Kasich seems to be getting much momentum, observers say the results of the March 15 primary contests—where those candidates will compete in their home states—could spell the makings of an exciting Indiana primary.

“It’s unfolding in front of our eyes right now,” said Allen County Republican Party Chairman Steve Shine. “There is no consensus on a Republican nominee. If there’s nothing decisive [on March 15], then I believe that the landscape for an extremely interesting Indiana primary will have been set.”

Trump so far leads the delegate count—he has 384 compared with Cruz’s 300, Rubio’s 151 and Kasich’s 37—but that easily could change, since most upcoming contests on the GOP side are winner-take-all and don’t award delegates on a proportional basis.

“If Trump gets momentum and wins some states by just a few percentage points, then it will be a runaway train before Indiana’s done,” said Mike Wolf, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

But Wolf said the results in some states that still have to vote—namely Michigan (Tuesday), Illinois (March 15) and Pennsylvania (April 26)—could change the narrative of the race.

“That’s why John Kasich is staying in the race,” Wolf said. “States that are more regionally in his favor are still on the board. He’s kind of the wild card here because his industrial Midwest roots should be the greatest challenge in that area. If somebody breaks, they can catch up pretty quickly and then they would have the momentum going forward.”

If Republicans can’t unite around a nominee by the time the race reaches Indiana, Shine said, there’s also the chance of defunct presidential campaigns impacting the results. Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and several other candidates are on the ballot in Indiana despite the fact that their campaigns are suspended.

“There will be people who will vote for those people because they want to send a message,” Shine said. “In a close campaign, that could make a difference.”

On the Democratic side, observers agree that the competition likely will be much less fierce here, but only if Hillary Clinton continues to win states with sizable delegate counts. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders has won eight states—including a significant win in Maine on Sunday—to Hillary Clinton’s 11 state wins, Clinton already has a significant delegate lead.

Clinton has 1,130 delegates, including 458 superdelegates, compared to Sanders 499 delegates, which includes 22 superdelegates. Excluding superdelegates, who are free to change their minds and support any candidate up until the party convention, the race becomes much more competitive.

“By the time it gets here, it will probably look like it’s over,” said Democratic strategist Dan Parker. “That’s assuming she wins the states she’s supposed to win.”

A competitive presidential primary in May would be a shot in the arm for local TV stations, which could see a flood of TV advertising as candidates try to make their last appeal to voters.

It could also increase voter turnout among Hoosiers who want a slice of the action and influence statewide races, including the Republican Senate  primary where U.S. Reps. Todd Young and Marlin Stutzman are competing for retiring Sen. Dan Coats’ seat.

“I don’t’ think those two are prepared for it,” Wolf said. “What do you do if you’re in this battle and you have this enormous competition from the outside mobilizing Republicans and drawing some people who haven’t voted before. You have an electorate you were not envisioning prior. Do you endorse somebody? Do you show up on stage with any of these candidates?”

Some see a competitive Indiana primary as a means to lobby for an earlier date.

Parker said the 2008 Democratic presidential primary result—Clinton narrowly defeated Barack Obama here, which commentators said kept the race alive longer—put the state in play in November.

“I hope that it’s still in play just because it might be another way of convincing the Legislature to move up the primary and maybe have it the same day as Ohio and Illinois,” Parker said. “It would be a good thing to move it up.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.