The plan to stop Donald Trump is not playing well in Indiana, a state crucial to the billionaire's prospects of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Ohio Governor John Kasich locked up both of his campaign offices in the state and canceled a Tuesday rally there after his team vowed Sunday night to “give the Cruz campaign a clear path” in Indiana to defeating the front-runner. But he gave no instructions to his volunteers about what to do next.
The Indiana co-chairman of Kasich's campaign wouldn't tell supporters to back Senator Ted Cruz. An Indiana delegate supporting Kasich was ambivalent about backing Cruz. And Kasich himself added to the confusion when he decided to make a fresh appeal to voters.
“I’ve never told them not to vote for me,” Kasich said during a campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday. “They ought to vote for me.”
Kasich said he simply agreed not to spend additional resources in Indiana. In exchange, Cruz won't compete in New Mexico and Oregon. Yet, further complicating matters, Kasich still plans to attend a Tuesday afternoon fundraiser in Indianapolis.
Almost immediately after Trump's rivals released their statements announcing the alliance, the deal was greeted with plenty of skepticism by those in Indiana who believed there was a better chance it would create a backlash and help Trump, instead of changing the dynamics in the race for Cruz.
“Hoosier voters,” said Brian Howey, publisher of the nonpartisan Howey Politics Indiana newsletter, “don't really like people telling them who to vote for.”
Ed Feigenbaum, an Indiana political analyst who runs the nonpartisan InGroupOnline.com, called it “a big crap-shoot.”
“There are a lot of people disillusioned with politics-as-usual and the Washington establishment, and these people might view this as collusion,” he said.
That was Trump's line of attack on Monday, as he mocked the deal during a pair of campaign rallies in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
“It's going to make them look weak and pathetic, which they are, as politicians,” Trump said about his rivals during speech at West Chester University in southeastern Pennsylvania. “In Indiana, the people are too smart to listen to this stuff. And I think it's going to have a huge reverse effect.”
The unusual alliance signaled the growing importance of the May 3 primary in Indiana as a way for establishment Republicans to stop Trump from winning the nomination. Cruz needs a strong showing—if not an outright victory—in the state to revitalize his campaign. A rare win in a Midwestern state for Trump would help solidify his argument for the nomination, even if he doesn't go on to clear the delegate threshold ahead of the party's convention.
Polling shows that Cruz needs Kasich supporters to vote for him to defeat Trump in Indiana, but those surveys also indicate that Trump is the second choice for many of them.
Tom John, an Indiana delegate who's backing Kasich, said he knew the safest way to help stop Trump is to vote for Cruz. He's just not sure he'll do it.
“There's eight days left, so I'll probably make that decision when it's closer,” John, the Republican chairman of Indiana's 7th Congressional District, said in an interview.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, one of Kasich's campaign co-chairmen in the state, said he wouldn't tell Hoosier Republicans how they should vote. “Voters are smart, and they'll figure out what they need to do,” Brainard said. “What we're not doing is splitting the voters that understand that Trump can’t win in the fall.”
Instead, Brainard repeated Kasich's talking points, saying the Ohio governor is the only candidate who can defeat expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the fall and unite the Republican Party.
The deal also irritated supporters who already had cast ballots in the state. About 83,700 voters participated in both the Republican and Democratic races as of Friday, about twice as many as the same time four years ago, according to data from the Indiana Secretary of State's office.
“This election is garbage,” state Representative David Ober, a Republican from northeast Indiana, posted on Twitter after the Cruz-Kasich deal was announced. “I voted early and then they cut a deal a week before election day.”
Jeff Cardwell, the Indiana Republican chairman, questioned how how the deal benefited Kasich, the popular governor of a neighboring state. The Cincinnati and Toledo media markets bleed into eastern Indiana, making Kasich a familiar name for voters in that part of the state.
“He's a neighbor, he's well-known. I just don't know what they're thinking,” Cardwell said in an interview. “I'm not sure what the strategy is there.”
John Weaver, Kasich's chief strategist, said in a memo released on Sunday night that the Ohio governor's campaign agreed to the deal because “we are very comfortable with our delegate position in Indiana already.”
That's a reference to the fact that the Kasich campaign believes that a majority of the state's 57 delegates are either publicly or privately willing to support the Ohio governor, spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach has said. The delegates will be bound on the first ballot based on primary results, and they will be free after that to support any candidate.
While Trump has won more votes than any Republican presidential candidate, he's not yet on pace to collect the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination before the party's convention in July. But there are more than enough delegates up for grabs in the final six weeks for him to seal the deal. Both Kasich and Cruz are mathematically eliminated from winning the nomination on the first ballot at the convention.
Trump is expected to score big wins on Tuesday in five mid-Atlantic and northeastern states, building on momentum he picked up from a landslide victory last week in New York. In an attempt to shake up the race and prevent the New York billionaire from reaching the finish line, Kasich and Cruz are splitting up some of the remaining states, hoping that one-on-one battles will help them coalesce anti-Trump voters.
But while Cruz supporters were energized by the deal, for Kasich's backers “it's like someone let the air of their balloon,” said Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a center-right talk show host in Indianapolis and editor 0f IndyPolitics.org. Shabazz said he was probably a Kasich supporter, and isn't sure what he'll do now.
“I'm going to have to figure this out after an alcohol bender,” he said.