Cruz's stealth strategy to defeat Trump in NY

New York may lead the nation in finance and in fashion, but when it comes to politics, the country tends to look elsewhere. As a safely Democratic state with a late primary, New Yorkers aren't used to being the center of political attention.

And yet…on April 19, New York State will play a high profile role in the fortunes of the front-runners, especially Donald Trump.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is desperate for a decisive home state victory to break Bernie Sanders' momentum, but the polls show Sanders narrowing the gap quickly. So far, Clinton has shown New Yorkers that she is unfamiliar with subway turnstiles and insulted minorities in an attempt to be funny; Sanders has convinced readers of the Daily News that he possesses a poor grasp of the issues. Watch for Clinton to win by a margin small enough to keep Sanders's momentum going.

The Republican primary — as is typically the case this year — is both more complex and more interesting. Three delegates are up for grabs in each of the state's 27 Congressional districts. Any candidate to win an outright majority will win all three; if no candidate takes a majority, the first place finisher will win two, and the second place finisher, one. At the state level, a candidate boasting an outright majority will earn 14 delegates; in the absence of a majority winner, the party will allocate those delegates proportionately.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump is also looking to his home state to blunt Ted Cruz's momentum.

In recent weeks, Cruz has posted strong showings in Utah, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Colorado to narrow the delegate gap significantly. Trump, like Clinton, has begun to look panicked — in his case, by whining about being outplayed, stepping up the personal insults and hiring a Washington fixer.

Trump seems poised to post a significant victory in New York, much as Cruz dominated his home state of Texas and John Kasich posted his sole primary victory at home in Ohio. The RealClearPolitics average of recent GOP polls shows Trump likely to break 50 percent for the first time, with Kasich and Cruz both hovering around 20 percent. Behind these top-level numbers, however, the strategic maneuvering warrants a deeper look.

The Trump campaign has parlayed its strength in marketing to a significant lead in pledged delegates. Trump's clearest — likely only — path to the nomination is to arrive in Cleveland with the requisite 1,237 delegates committed to voting for him on the first ballot. If he fails to secure that majority, his weak ground game will then begin to show as he loses delegates on subsequent ballots.

His New York strategy is thus straightforward: win as many votes as possible, wherever possible.

If the polls hold, he will win all 14 of the at-large delegates, and at least two delegates from each of the state's districts. Given his commanding lead in the polls, however, Trump should consider anything short of a clean sweep disappointing.

The Cruz campaign, which boasts a powerful ground game, has been playing the primaries to gain enough delegates to win on the second or third ballot. Cruz is not well-known in New York, and polls suggest that his quip about "New York values" did little to ingratiate him even to New York's Republicans. Still, he has attempted to deploy his quiet microtargeting to play a weak hand well. Cruz's two highest profile stops in the state have been a meeting with black evangelical ministers in the Bronx and a trip to a matzah bakery with Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.

Though some of the press chose to mock these events, they positioned Cruz well with the dominant Republican factions in two overwhelmingly Democratic districts, where a small number of primary voters can deliver significant returns in the delegate count. With many recent polls putting Cruz's support below 20 percent, any New York delegates he wins will confirm the strength of his disciplined strategy.

Meanwhile, Kasich, who is running ahead of Cruz in some statewide polls, is likely to hurt Trump more than Cruz — in sharp contrast to the role he has played elsewhere. The polls suggest strongly that, unlike most other states, Trump would easily win a one-on-one matchup with Cruz in New York — if not in every district, then in most of them, and throughout the state. Kasich's presence thus complicates Trump's drive for outright majorities everywhere. Paradoxical though it may sound, Cruz's microtargeting game plan benefits from Kasich's presence — even as Kasich may win some of the delegates that Cruz desperately needs.

Watch for Trump to boast about his projected victory in the popular vote, while Cruz quietly leverages his strategic ground game to a surprising delegate haul.

New Yorkers may be unabashedly opinionated about our politics, but there's seldom any drama about the outcomes. This Tuesday, however, the eyes of the nation are on us.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D., and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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