PHOENIX — With 22 states yet to vote, it will take a stunning set of dominant victories by Ted Cruz to clinch the Republican nomination before July’s convention -- a finish that would require the Texas conservative to defeat Donald Trump in likely all but two or three states and secure a significant portion of unbound delegates.
“It’s very difficult for us to get to 1237 -- we get that,” acknowledged Jason Johnson, Cruz’s chief strategist, after the results rolled in on Tuesday night, leaving the campaign winless in all five states and without the delegate haul it hoped to lock up. “But we can get that. We plan on getting there.”
The Cruz campaign insists it has a path to the nomination, but the math indicates that it will very likely have to bank on winning the nomination at a contested convention in which neither Cruz or Trump enter with the majority of the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
For Cruz to lock up the bid before the convention, he would need to win 80 percent of the remaining delegates.
“Something that we’ve taken for granted as commonplace for the last 40 years is about to become a major event,” said Ben Ginsberg, former counsel for the Republican National Committee, referring to the convention, which in recent history has served primarily as a glorified pep rally for its nominee and vice presidential candidate.
A top Republican strategist told NBC News the “power brokers in DC are all beginning to lay out the strategy” for a convention, adding: “There’s really no way around it now."
But despite its public push that it can win outright, the Cruz campaign acknowledged that it is expending resources into its delegate-retention efforts.
“We have invested the resources that we need to invest in the delegate process making sure that we not only understand the rules but that we have the volunteers and the paid staff needed,” Johnson said.
John Kasich’s continuance in the race also poses an added hurdle for the campaign.
“He’s going to be very helpful to Donald,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, on Tuesday night. “He does not help us.”
Cruz’s path was already narrow, but Kasich, who has zero chance of winning the nomination pre-convention as long as Trump and Cruz remain in the race, further complicates the map for Cruz -- perhaps even cutting into his ability to reach the 50 percent threshold in Utah that would trigger a rule in the state allocating each of its 40 delegates to him.
Johnson called Kasich the “spoiler in the race” after the Ohio governor’s victory rally on Tuesday.
An NBC News/WSJ national poll released last week gave Cruz a 17-point edge -- 57 percent to 40 percent -- over Trump when matched up head to head.
“It’s a wasted earning of delegate because [Kasich] can’t get there,” Johnson said. “Like my dream of making the senior tour on the PGA or my dream of being a NASCAR driver, it ain’t going to happen.”
Regardless of Kasich’s presence, Roe said the campaign believes it will at least “have a delegate lead going into convention.”
For Cruz, the tracking of each delegate will be crucial in the months ahead. The path to an outright victory is strikingly difficult.
Along with Utah, Arizona votes next Tuesday in a winner-take-all race with 58 delegates up for grab, but already, the campaign is dampening expectations, citing high early ballot returns that still included Rubio and Kasich on the ballot. Johnson said it will “play hard” in the state but is making “the assumption that we don’t get Arizona’s delegates” when looking at the map.
Cruz then intends to “dig into” Wisconsin’s primary on April 5 and has to follow it up with solid wins in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota.
But the Cruz campaign is also banking on needed success around Trump’s home turf. It is looking to take all of New Jersey’s 51 delegates, and as Johnson noted -- “at a time when every state is important” -- the campaign says it intends on “spending lots of time in New York.”
“If you think we’re ceding New York because Donald Trump hails from Queens and lives in Manhattan, that would be a mistake,” Johnson said.
Then on the final day of voting, June 7, pulling off roughly three-quarters of California’s 172 delegates is seen as imperative.
And that’s where unbound delegates -- which there could be roughly 100 of -- could ultimately determine the nomination. The direction these delegates decide to take could elevate Cruz or Trump above the 1237 delegate clip to seal the deal.
“The unbound delegates become incredibly more important,” Johnson said.
Party leadership in each state decides differently how it allocates its delegates. Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, American Samoa and Guam all have unbound delegates whom can decide to vote for any candidate they choose at the convention.
Adding to that group, a good chunk of Rubio’s delegates are now free to pick a different candidate at the convention -- a potential game changing field of delegates that Ginsberg noted “doubles the pot of unbound delegates on the first ballot.” In Minnesota, the 17 delegates that Rubio won earlier this month are now expected to have the chance to side with a candidate of their own choosing.
And the campaign isn’t naive to its opportunity to reel them in.
“The people who have supported Rubio in the past and those who would in the future are incredibly important to the success of the campaign in making it to 1237,” agreed Johnson. “There’s no question about that.”
Contributions from Hallie Jackson & Frank Thorp