After taking a weekend to collect my thoughts and give myself a pat on the back about the effects of Nikki Haley’s endorsement of Rubio getting him second place in South Carolina let’s get down to brass tacks: What does it all mean?
Obviously it means a reprieve for Rubio, who successfully battled back from 5th place in New Hampshire, and another win for Donald and a big one; in a split field, he’s got the nomination on lock. Was it a terrible body blow for Cruz to come in third (politics goes by Toretto’s law, so don’t talk to me about ties)? Let’s go candidate-by-candidate again to take a look at how this can play out in the coming weeks before Nevada.
Trump got a win, and what a win. It’s all well and good to talk about fractured fields but Trump won: men, women, 45-64, 65+, high school graduates, college graduates, some college, born-again, and evangelical Christians, Republican, and Independents, somewhat conservatives and moderates, veterans and non-veterans, everyone not deciding in the last week, people looking for change, and people who want someone who tells it like it is (47% of the voters picked that one of those values). He also won people who care most about jobs, immigration, terrorism, the economy, as well as a great many other categories. It’s impressive.
So is Trump bulletproof or has he hit his ceiling? There’s a certain cascade effect in primaries, since people are social animals and you want to be part of a winning group. Even with Bush’s dropping out, he’s still far in front of any of his rivals. If he can hold that lead and keep Cruz and Rubio at each other’s throats (which doesn’t look like a difficult task) he can win the delegate counts and carry home the nomination over the objections of the political machine.
I’ve received emails from his campaign asking for help manning phone banks and walking precincts so he’s starting to stir a traditional machine which will help him on the ground against the turnout efforts of Cruz and Rubio. Given his monstrous advantage in free media (who picks a fight with the Pope?) he’ll dominate all the stories. Even his stumbles will be the story and he’ll stay in for the long haul. With the SEC Primaries coming up air-time and surrogacy are going to be important but Trump has a habit of flying-in, holding a monster rally, and then moving on. His barnstorming looks set to conquer the GOP and unless something changes after March 1 I give him a better than even chance of being the nominee in Cleveland.
Rubio came in second, which he badly needed given all the endorsements he got from prominent and popular South Carolina Republicans. I’m not surprised that he did better in South Carolina than in New Hampshire, given the famously late-breaking New Hampshire electorate and his stumble in the debate. I guess it really did matter.
But when you break down the numbers there’s something to be concerned about however: he won only a few categories. He won post-graduate voters, people who decided within the last week, people whose top quality was he can win in November, people who prioritize experience in politics, people dissatisfied but not angry with the government, people who thought Haley’s endorsement was important, people who want illegals to be granted legal status, and people opposing a ban on Muslims entering the US. He tied with Trump in the 30-44 age group.
Worse, he came in second by a very large margin: 73,821 voters according to the Decision Desk HQ, or about 10% of the record-breaking electorate. I am not sure, as of this writing, if he won any congressional districts to pick up 6 delegates out of the 50 I thought were involved. Given his popularity with post-grads it wouldn’t be surprising if he won Charleston and Columbia which would help in the general since the GOP badly underperforms in cities which is why we have a hard time winning the Senate and presidency despite our great performance since 2010 in the House. However I note with trepidation that the categories he won are traditionally strong categories for Democratic voters (except for Haley’s endorsement of course) which negates some of those electability arguments that keep being made for him.
The best news of the night for Rubio was Jeb Bush’s suspension of his campaign. The common wisdom is that Rubio collects those votes, although I am somewhat skeptical that people who picked Bush over Rubio to the bitter end would shift their votes towards the Florida senator and not the remaining governor in the race: John Kasich.
If Kasich continues to play spoiler, he could keep Rubio from the second place finishes he needs in the SEC primaries. He also needs the support of the people who spent $150 million on Jeb’s campaign.
Looking at the ground now, you have to favor Rubio as the last anti-Trump candidate standing in the race. My one worry is that the panicky run of endorsements could drive him from a consensus to pure establishment candidate which could hurt him against Trump in a long primary.
Third — even a close third — is a bad fit for Cruz in South Carolina, which did not treat him well. Looking at the breakdown of voters, it’s not hard to see why: he won only three categories of voters. The 17-29 group (10% of voters), very conservative (38% of voters), and shares my values (37% of voters).
Sure he came in a close third (by 1,122 votes) but in politics it doesn’t matter if you lose by one or one million votes. The optics are bad and his campaign and supporters have to face that fact even if it doesn’t seem to hold for some other candidates.
It seems the reason he came in third was because he was second (or third) in a number that Trump won by double-digits. Given the strong importance placed by the Cruz campaign in South Carolina, you have to ask yourself what went wrong.
Some of the problem was either brilliant dirty tricks (not to be discounted in South Carolina), ham-handed political behavior by his campaign, or some combination of the two. My money’s on both which is bad news for the folks opposing Trump: both Rubio and Cruz have shown surprising vulnerability to negative campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina and — if either wins the nomination — there will be plenty of negative campaigning going on against either of them.
Cruz has a larger problem, however, as he’s fighting a two-front war. Both Trump and Rubio seem to believe that if they’ll collect the lion shares of Cruz’s votes if they can knock him Cruz out of the race. Looking at RCP’s national polls (which, incidentally, don’t include post-South Carolina numbers yet) if Trump won Cruz’s voters he’d get 54.8% of the electorate. That’s game over.
If Rubio won Cruz’s voters (and Bush’s) he’d be at 42% – enough to beat Trump even with Kasich absorbing some of the votes away from Rubio. So Cruz has to figure out how to spend his money to counter two candidate’s attacks in the South and somehow boost his own chances at the same time.
Honestly I’m not sure how well that will work since he has shown both a tendency towards conservative spending and he’s not collecting high-profile endorsements like Rubio. Since he can’t count of high-profile endorsers to act as surrogates, he needs to open his coffers and flood the zone. But with Trump as the ultimate anti-Establishment candidate who can do no wrong — thanks in large part to a spectacularly poor anti-Trump campaign by the conservative media — Cruz’s opportunity to win is looking more and more like a long-shot.
The ray of hope for Cruz is that now Trump is starting to hit Rubio; if Rubio absorbs some of the Trump fire and has to fire back against Trump directly instead of with his oblique hits as he has, that’ll take some heat away from Cruz and give him more room to maneuver.
Jeb had another bad night, 7.9% and suspended his campaign, which was the right move. He never regained traction once Trump entered the race and proved that there are things fundraising can’t buy. He probably wasn’t helped by Mike Murphy’s taking a hefty portion — reckoned by some to be as high as $14 million — as compensation from the Super PAC.
The question now is where his voters and his money go from here. Given reportedly hard feelings from the Bush camp towards Rubio, Bush’s infrastructure (such as it is) like won’t go there. That’s actually good news for Rubio, as anyone with “Jeb 2016” on their resume should be banished from electoral politics forever.
Big money left after the bonfire from Right to Rise, however, should flow to Rubio since he’s the other Florida GOP politician and — before Rubio correctly read a weakness in Jeb’s bid — he was well-connected within the same organizations as Bush’s former protégé.
Bush’s numbers were best in the categories that Rubio has won, so the bulk of his voters should go to Rubio as well, though those who value experience category may go to Kasich.
Kasich conceded South Carolina before primary day and wasn’t even in the state. That he performed as well as he did gives him the staying power to play possible kingmaker at a brokered convention or — if Rubio and Cruz both self-destruct — be the last anti-Trump standing.
He’s probably not going to do well in the SEC primary but may do better once he moves into the Rust Belt. Of all the candidates who could benefit from Jeb’s organization Kasich is the one.
Carson came in last, garnering 53,277 votes. I have to doff my cap to Mr. Dart however who correctly predicted a stronger showing in Greenville, Spartanburg, Cherokee, York, Lancaster, Chester, Newberry, Greenwood Anderson and Abbeville counties. If those voters had broken towards Cruz or Rubio they could have put the rest of the pack away for good.
Cruz seems to have been hurt worst by Carson remaining in the race as the counties Cruz came closest to Trump in were the same ones Carson did best in.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Cruz can count on those voters. With the exception of voters wanting an outside candidate, Carson’s best categories are also Rubio’s best categories (including several Rubio won outright) so Rubio may be able to pick up Carson’s voters in the long run if Carson drops out. Given the fact that he’s placed poorly in every state so far it’s hard to see why he’s still in the race at all. Hopefully he can manage a graceful exit soon and let his voters move on.
Looking Ahead to Nevada
We don’t know what will happen in Nevada, but the most recent poll on RCP gives Trump an intimidating 16 point lead. Cruz was in second with 23 and Rubio in third, but we should expect Rubio to get some lift from coming second in Nevada and Cruz to take a hit. If there’s an eight percent shift — which isn’t impossible — then Rubio comes in second in 23% and Cruz at 19%. Cruz’s turnout model may help him in another caucus but Rubio’s machine was both quiet and effective in South Carolina and Iowa, so Cruz will have to work hard.
The most likely scenario I see is Rubio in second and Cruz in third. But no matter what happens, we should expect another Trump victory on Tuesday.