Donald Trump is the front-runner. Marco Rubio is likely the only candidate left who can stop him. And Ted Cruz and John Kasich aren’t leaving the race anytime soon — but it’s hard to see how either could be more than a spoiler.
Trump’s double-digit victory in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary and Rubio’s narrow second-place finish, coupled with Jeb Bush’s decision to drop out, makes it likely that either the young Florida senator or the billionaire mogul will win the GOP nomination.
Now, as the race shifts to the Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses and the bigger, delegate-rich states of March, the question is whether Rubio can consolidate support from the rest of the GOP’s establishment-oriented wing in time to topple Trump — or if the current delegate leader’s early wins and growing working-class coalition have made him impossible to catch.
Taking down the front-runner is a tall order for Rubio. In the modern era, every GOP candidate who, like Trump, has won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has eventually also won the party’s presidential nomination. And even though Bush’s exit will bolster Rubio’s supply of supporters and donors, he must still contend with Kasich, the Ohio governor who is intent on staying in the race despite his distant fifth-place showing in South Carolina.
It was little surprise that on Sunday, Rubio began making the argument that he was the only viable candidate left who is acceptable to party’s establishment and center-right factions.
“I think last night was truly the beginning of the real Republican primary,” Rubio said during an appearance on CNN’s "State of the Union." “We went through the semifinals and the quarterfinals. And I think you're now down to a core probably of three candidates who are running full-scale national campaigns.”
It was also little surprise that he left his now-last establishment rival Kasich out of the conversation.
After winning all of South Carolina’s 50 delegates, Trump now has twice as many delegates as the rest of the field combined — 67 to 33, according to a tabulation from RealClearPolitics. He’s favored to win the Nevada caucuses (though polling there is notoriously unreliable), which would make him the winner of three of the first four contests in the fight for the nomination.
Exit polls from South Carolina mirrored those from New Hampshire, which showed Trump’s support concentrated among less well-educated voters but still performing reasonably well with Republican voters of all demographics.
Super Tuesday will be the next indication of whether Trump's support will grow beyond the 30 percent to 35 percent he’s received once the field narrows, or if all or a strong majority of supporters of candidates no longer in the race line up behind someone else. In effect, Trump must prove his success is more his broad appeal to the GOP coalition than the fact that thus far he has run in a race severely fractured among more than half-dozen viable candidates.
“Yesterday, when people went to vote in South Carolina, they had six” candidates to pick from, Rubio said on CNN. “And that really divided up the vote a little bit. And so that dynamic is beginning to shift.”
If the Palmetto State primary helped put Rubio back on track after his disappointing result in New Hampshire, it took Cruz off his own path. In a state whose GOP primary electorate was nearly three-quarters evangelical, Cruz needed to demonstrate that he could take on — and defeat — the front-runner Trump.
He didn’t. And that raises deep questions about whether he can win a slate of Southern-state Republican primaries next week, contests he needed to win before the nomination fight moves to less favorable terrain for a candidate who polls best with evangelical and very conservative voters.
On Sunday, Cruz argued that he — not Rubio — is the best positioned to take on Trump.
“It’s apparent the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump, and has beaten Donald Trump, is our campaign,” he said on "State of the Union."
But exit poll data suggest he is falling into the same trap past winners of the Iowa caucuses like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum: unable to expand his coalition beyond a too-small band of conservative and religious Republicans. Exit polls from South Carolina showed him winning only 13 percent of GOP voters who didn’t identify as born-again Christians. He won 35 percent of very conservative Republicans, but only 17 percent of somewhat conservative voters and 7 percent of moderates — well behind both Trump and Rubio.
Cruz still finished well ahead of Kasich, who barely competed in South Carolina while he turned his attention to the primaries in Michigan and his home state of Ohio. Kasich officials said Saturday’s results made the primary a four-man race, with Kasich the only governor left after Christie’s and Bush’s departures.
But he is unlikely to do well in any of the races on Super Tuesday next week, and the pressure for him to exit the race could build in the meantime.
“He will have a lot of pressure to show he deserves to be there and is not just hanging on and hurting another candidate,” John Brabener, who was a senior strategist for Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, told Roll Call. “He could become the Gingrich on 2016.”
Contact Roarty at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @Alex_Roarty.
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