There are days, like yesterday, when Donald Trump must find it hard to believe just how lucky he’s been in this presidential campaign.
His two remaining opponents for the Republican nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, offered him a pair of gifts in the space of about 12 hours. First they declared Sunday night that they had reached an agreement to work together to deny him the nomination, reinforcing his narrative that career politicians are conspiring against him. Then they let that agreement fall apart in public, reinforcing Trump’s narrative that only he has the dealmaking skills needed to reclaim the White House.
Luck has, no doubt, played a huge role in Trump’s success. He entered a presidential race with a field so atomized that his star power alone was enough to help him rise to the top of the public opinion polls, even if he did so only with a weak plurality.
It was also the first race in which two Supreme Court decisions that removed almost all limits on campaign contributions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — were in effect. For Trump, who ran a shoestring campaign that he paid for largely from his own funds, the rulings had an ironically beneficial effect.
Trump didn’t raise a whole lot of extra money because of them, but many of his opponents did. And the relative ease with which a few wealthy donors could keep a preferred candidate in the race allowed a bunch of borderline contenders to hang around longer than they should have, dividing the vote and helping Trump to remain the frontrunner, even if by a plurality rather than a majority.
Then there were the candidates themselves. As primary voting got underway, one of Trump’s opponents was a famous neurosurgeon who was, bizarrely, forced to defend his own claim that as a boy he tried to stab a relative with a camping knife. Another was a former governor of Arkansas who had profited from endorsing a bogus cure for diabetes. Yet another was the governor of New Jersey who, among other things, was dealing with the fallout from a scandal in which his aides authorized the politically motivated partial closure of a major bridge between his state and New York City.
In an election where the chief attack on Trump was that he was an unelectable toxic waste dump of indefensible policy positions, the presence of multiple other unelectable candidates helped normalize him.
But for The Donald, Monday was a special day. Late Sunday night, Cruz and Kasich both announced via their campaigns that they had struck a deal to prevent Trump from winning a majority of delegates on the way to the GOP nominating convention in July. Kasich would stop competing in Indiana, which votes next week, in order to give Cruz a clear shot at Trump there. In exchange, Cruz would pull out of New Mexico and Oregon, allowing Kasich a chance to battle Trump there.
But the deal practically collapsed within 12 hours of it being announced. On Monday morning, Kasich acknowledged that the campaigns had reached an agreement — but then said he wouldn’t discourage his supporters in Indiana from voting for him anyway. In fact, he explicitly discouraged the idea of his supporters voting strategically, saying that Kasich supporters “ought to vote for me.”
The Cruz campaign, for its part, told its field workers that they should not encourage voters in New Mexico and Oregon to support Kasich. “We never tell voters who to vote for,” was the campaign’s message to supporters.
Again, Trump must be sitting in Trump Tower marveling at his good fortune. The campaign to this point has seemed practically designed to favor him. And now, when his remaining opponents seemed finally ready to join forces against him, they turn out to be unable to execute even a relatively simple plan to damage his chances.
Trump has spent his run for the White House bestowing nicknames on his opponents. It may be time to recognize the New York billionaire as “Lucky Don.”