If Donald Trump didn't kill the "stop Trump" movement on Tuesday night, he left it battered and bruised.
The Republican front-runner's case for the nomination was boosted with larger-than-expected blowout victories in five Northeastern states Tuesday, raising his total state wins to to 27—including most of the East Coast and much of the South. Ted Cruz, his chief rival, is pouring his energies into Indiana in the hope that voters there give him a victory and keep his White House hopes alive.
The Texas senator, and super-PACs working to help him or to stop Trump in Indiana, have just seven days to try to block Trump's march to the nomination.
"I consider myself the presumptive nominee," Trump declared in his victory speech on Tuesday night at Trump Tower. "I think the party is seeing me that way" as well, he later added in response to a reporter's question.
Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and is now the top political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "Trump is now the inevitable GOP nominee," he said.
Trump's sweep in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware means he needs about just about half of remaining delegates to win the nomination. Before Tuesday's results came in, Trump needed 59 percent.
On May 3, Indiana's Republican voters will award the largest remaining pool of statewide delegates for the victor, 30, in addition to 27 delegates allocated by the winners of congressional districts. It's a close contest: Trump leads Cruz narrowly in three recent Indiana polls—by 5, 8 and 6 points, respectively.
A narrowing path
Failing to beat Trump in Indiana, the path to stopping him would narrow, if not vanish, without a drastic shift in the landscape. Cruz's strength in states like Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana won't be enough to keep Trump under 1,237 delegates. California, which awards 172 delegates on a mostly winner-take-all basis by congressional district, appears to favor Trump. Three recent surveys there show him leading Cruz there by 27, 18, and 7 points.
"There's no question that efforts to stop Trump from winning the nomination, and essentially handing the White House to Hillary Clinton, rest largely in the hands of Indiana voters next week," said Republican strategist Brian Walsh. "Despite the fact that Cruz clearly has the better ground game in actual delegate selection, the basic first ballot math would make it difficult to stop Trump in the remaining states if he manages to win Indiana."
Dave Wasserman, an analyst at the Cook Political Report and expert on the delegate math of the GOP primary, also argued that it was Indiana or bust for Cruz. "It won't be very realistic to stop Trump if Cruz can't defeat him statewide in Indiana," he said.
Cruz made multiple stops in Indiana Tuesday and plans two more Wednesday, in Indianapolis: An appearance at Sister's Place Restaurant, 215 Terrace Ave., at 9:30 a.m. and a 4 p.m. rally at Pan Am Plaza, 201 S. Capitol Ave.
Trump also plans a rally Wednesday, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds at 6 p.m. in an event featuring former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight.
Trump also has strong majorities of Republicans in numerous states on his side if he fails to clear the delegate threshold but leads his rivals. According to exit polls, the leading candidate going into the convention should be the nominee—by margins of 70 percent in Pennsylvania, 66 percent in Maryland and 68 percent in Connecticut.
If Cruz is planning on a final push to make up the difference against Trump, late-deciders broke for Kasich over Cruz in those three states (the were no public exit polls in Delaware and Rhode Island), suggesting an uphill climb to make his case to Indianans in the next week.
In Pennsylvania, exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters—and 59 percent of Trump's supporters—said they "felt betrayed by Republican politicians," another sign that a contested convention resulting in another nominee would leave the party badly damaged. Trump's victory grants him 17 statewide delegates and his comfortable margin could put pressure on the 54 "unbound" delegates to support him at the convention.
"The people of Indiana are going to play such an important role in the selection of our nominee," Indiana Governor Mike Pence said during an interview in downtown Indianapolis. "This is really new for Indiana. This has only happened a couple of times in my lifetime." He said he hasn't decided whether to endorse in the race, but vowed to back whomever wins the nomination.
An awkward alliance
Cruz, who recently met with Pence, spent election night Tuesday in Indiana after his chief strategist unveiled a deal two days earlier with John Kasich in which the Texan "will focus its time and resources in Indiana" while the Ohio governor directs his campaign's resources in New Mexico and Oregon. The alliance, announced Sunday, quickly proved awkward when Kasich said Monday that his supporters in Indiana should vote for him, rather than Cruz, before walking it back.
The Cruz-Kasich alliance was moonshot from the start, said Katon Dawson, a Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. The results on Tuesday suggest Trump may "run the deck," he said.
"Any time people try to gang up on him, it makes him stronger," Dawson said in a interview. "People like the fact that he's not politically correct, and they think that's the key to success to returning the country to the way it ought to be."
Trump's fire-and-brimstone closing argument against the party's nomination rules and accusations of "collusion" between his two remaining opponents were followed by even stronger support than polls predicted in the Northeast. It remains to be seen if the tag-team effort by Cruz and Kasich will ultimately help Trump more than it harms him, by feeding his narrative of a "rigged" party structure.
Outside groups vying to block Trump from the nomination have also caught on to the Hoosier State's importance.
The conservative group Club For Growth Action recently announced a $1.5 million TV ad buy in Indiana to hit Trump. Our Principles PAC, which released a memo downplaying the results Tuesday shortly before the polls closed, is active in every statewide Indiana market other than the Chicago area, said adviser Tim Miller.
"Indiana is important though a path remains through Nebraska, California and the northwest," Miller said in an e-mail. "We have a full effort in the state educating voters about Trumps history of taking advantage of regular people to enrich himself and degrading women."
Brad Todd, a GOP strategist who ran a super-PAC that supported former presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, said the walloping in the Trump-friendly Northeast was factored in to projections of an open convention.
"This changes nothing but the anxiety levels among the Cruz staff and donors. It might cause a little more whiskey to be poured in Houston but it is no reason for champagne in New York," he said.
Others in the "stop Trump" camp also see reason for optimism.
“Even if the media yearns to declare this race over, the path to 1,237 delegates remains narrow for Trump," Rory Cooper, an adviser to #NeverTrump PAC, said in a statement. "The #NeverTrump movement will now move into Indiana, where Ted Cruz has a real opportunity to deny Trump a sizeable number of delegates and change the narrative of this race."
'Going all out'
Some voters in Indiana recognize the importance of the state for Cruz.
"I think they're going all-out right now, but I think it might be a notch above all-out,'' Jack Edison, a 71-year-old retired teacher and basketball coach from Plymouth, who is volunteering for Cruz. "I think they'll dig in deeper," Edison said between making calls to voters on Tuesday at the Cruz office in Mishawaka.
Susan Chilberg, 69, of Elkhart, who voted early for Trump, said a victory for the billionaire would essentially be Cruz's last stand, but she doesn’t expect him to give up.
"It would seem to be to be that," she said, "but he'll never admit to that."