Cruz makes last-minute plea for votes on north shore _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD – Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks during a campaign rally Friday, March 4, 2016, at the Castine Center in Pelican Park near Mandeville, one day before the Louisiana presidential primary.

Was Louisiana’s Republican primary a turning point for Donald Trump — or even, as some GOP leaders desperately hope, the beginning of the end?

I’ve got my doubts.

Sure, Trump won the state as predicted. But as the votes were counted Saturday night, buzz was building that the belligerent billionaire had underperformed, particularly among voters who showed up on Election Day instead of voting early. Indeed, despite a quick network call that normally heralds a blowout, Trump wound up topping Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by just three percentage points, 41-38.

A deep dive into the numbers shows that, while Trump doubled Cruz’s take in early voting, Cruz actually finished a hair ahead among those who cast ballots on Saturday, following a raucous week highlighted by Trump’s attention-grabbing debate-stage boast over the size of his anatomy. One popular explanation is that the spell is finally starting to break, and voters are beginning to consider the ramifications of choosing a guy like Trump as their nominee.

But there are other ways to interpret the result as well.

One is that Louisiana’s numbers don’t necessarily represent a big shift from what’s been happening elsewhere. Cruz has performed well in his native Texas and nearby states; Louisiana is another neighbor, and parish-by-parish results show he won many areas closest to the border.

Cruz has also done well in caucus states and other places where party regulars dominate the process. Louisiana holds a primary, but only the 28 percent of voters registered as Republicans were eligible to participate. And Louisiana has lots of evangelical voters, a natural constituency for Cruz. Frankly, he was always positioned to perform well here.

Trump, meanwhile, has cut a swath through many parts of the electorate, including new voters and those who are not necessarily committed Republicans. There’s no reason to think that pattern doesn’t hold in Louisiana too.

And one more thing: While Trump’s support did drop between early voting and Election Day, the bigger shift appeared to be from Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to Cruz. Early voters gave Trump 47 percent, compared to 40 percent on Saturday. But Rubio dropped from 20 percent to 10 during that period, and Cruz’s support grew from 23 percent to 41.

So something’s definitely going on in the Republican race, and Louisiana may well beget Cruz’s emergence as the single strongest Trump rival. Wishful thinking aside, though, the end of Trump’s road seems as far off today as it did last week.

‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.