There are two obvious conclusions to draw from the current state of the Republican presidential race right now -- in fact, they're so incredibly obvious that (of course) they're being almost completely ignored by the punditocracy comfortably ensconced within the Washington Beltway. The first is that the only scheme for successfully derailing Donald Trump's march to the Republican nomination would be for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to almost immediately drop out of the race. The second conclusion is the obvious corollary to the first -- that this is simply not going to happen. Meaning Trump is getting very close to being undeniably the presumptive GOP nominee.
Saturday's primary results in South Carolina killed off most of the nonsensical "magical thinking" about Trump that's been rampant within both conservative media circles and within the establishment of the Republican Party. Up until this weekend, many have convinced themselves (and others) that Trump would inevitably crash and burn at some point, after which we would see the real race for the nomination begin. There was never anything to base this belief upon, of course, since Trump has proved over and over again -- for the past eight months -- that nothing he ever said or did would cause a loss of voter support. Nothing. The list of statements (any one of which would have completely killed any other candidate's chances) Trump has made to prove this point grows longer by the day -- and none of them have mattered one tiny bit. Each time the pundits and party insiders proclaimed "he's simply gone too far this time," Trump actually rose in the polls. He is Reaganesque in one crucial way -- he is the ultimate "Teflon" candidate, because nothing sticks to him, at all.
Throughout this entire period, pundits and establishmentarians alike convinced themselves, over and over again, that since they personally could not conceive of Trump becoming the GOP nominee, such a thing was almost by definition inconceivable. This is a logical fallacy -- "because I believe a thing to be true, it must be true." All along, it wasn't true, and it is still not true now.
There are still some clinging to such magical thinking even now, after they've been proven wrong for eight solid months. The current theme of this magical thinking is that Trump "has a ceiling" of only about a third of the Republican electorate, and thus he remains eminently beatable. This is the nonsense that prompted me to write this article today.
Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have entered into an almost surreal conceptual space, following Trump's big South Carolina win. They've apparently convinced themselves that "it's really a two-man race," consisting of them and Trump. Cruz and Rubio think that by ignoring each other, somehow (magically) this will become true and they will be in a head-to-head contest with Trump. Of course, to be charitable, perhaps it is no more than campaign spin, meant to convince reporters to write stories about this mythical two-man race. In other words, perhaps Cruz and Rubio don't really believe it themselves. One would like to hope this is true, since it in no way reflects reality. Whether the Cruz or Rubio campaigns admit it or not, it is now a three-man race.
But this wishful thinking is precisely why Trump is now positioned to run the tables and wrap up the nomination by the end of March (unless he does so earlier, in mid-March). Because the only possible way for him to lose is if the race did turn into a two-man contest. Which just isn't going to happen, or at least not soon enough to make enough difference.
Both Rubio and Cruz not only have Trump to contend with and each other to beat, they're also being dogged from behind by candidates who are no more than spoilers in the race, at this point. Marco Rubio got pretty excited by the news that Jeb Bush was ending his campaign, for obvious reasons. But the second campaign suspension announcement that Rubio truly needed did not actually materialize Saturday night. John Kasich is staying in, and will likely stay in at least until his home state of Ohio votes. Kasich's continued campaign hurts Rubio because it gives all those Bush voters someplace else to go (that is not extremist or looney). Even if Kasich continues to pull only single digits in primaries, that may be enough to deny Rubio the chance of ever catching up to Trump. Even without Kasich, Rubio would have to struggle mightily to do so, but with Kasich still in, it may be impossible.
Ted Cruz also has a spoiler, one with a very personal vendetta against him. Ben Carson has convinced himself that the reason he lost Iowa was because Cruz campaigners told his voters that he was dropping out of the race. Carson even got Cruz to apologize to him in the middle of a televised debate, which is pretty stunning (apologies of this sort are as rare as hen's teeth). Carson draws from pretty much the same demographic groups as Cruz, meaning that he siphons off a small portion of voters who would otherwise likely back Cruz. Like Kasich, this is a small percentage overall, but it might be enough that Cruz can never again catch Trump in a primary (except perhaps in his home state of Texas).
That's all bad enough news for Cruz and Rubio. But the worst news is that both of these candidates have so far had their own ceilings of support, and excepting the Cruz victory in Iowa, they have been far below the level of support Trump has gotten. Bluntly, the two are running hard against each other for second place -- and that's not the way to win the nomination. They are both currently touting their magical math (in their "two-man race" myth) -- that "70 percent" of Republicans won't vote for Trump, therefore he is still eminently beatable. By them, of course. But in the first place that 70 percent number is a bit high (65 percent would be more accurate), and in the second place it is still being split between four candidates. Cruz and Rubio would sincerely like to just award themselves all of the non-Trump vote, but that's not exactly the way elections work.
The only way to test the theory is exactly what is not going to happen, in fact. Because it would require either Cruz or Rubio to stand up tomorrow -- after they lose Nevada to Trump -- and announce that for the good of the party they were ending their campaign. If you believe this is going to happen, then I have some land in Nevada to sell you with the promise that it'll soon become beachfront property -- right after California slides off into the sea.
Ted Cruz is not going to drop out for the good of the party. Ted Cruz cares not a whit for the good of the Republican Party, in fact. His entire Senate career proves this beyond any shadow of a doubt. He will stay in the race until at least mid-March, and probably far beyond. He is on a personal crusade against what he calls the "Washington Cartel," and crusaders aren't known for loyalty to anything other than their own windmill-tilting.
Marco Rubio is also not going to drop out for the good of the party, because by conventional Washington wisdom "the good of the party" is now defined as Rubio's own candidacy. With Rubio out of the race, it truly would be a Cruz-versus-Trump contest, where the good of the Republican Party loses no matter who emerges on top. So quitting isn't even a conceivable option for Rubio -- because if he quits, it'll harm the party one way or another. John Kasich is just not a viable alternative, it goes without saying.
Let's engage in our own magical thinking, just for fun. Let's say that after coming in third in Nevada, Ted Cruz announces he's ending his run. Would that be enough for Rubio to have a solid chance? Cruz voters might flock to Ben Carson (who has zero chance of winning anything), but a portion of them would indeed back Rubio in their hatred of Trump. Rubio would be the only one left standing with any chance of defeating Trump, and many voters base their decision on who has an real shot at victory. By attrition, Rubio will be the only one left for voters who will never vote for Trump but still want a chance of their candidate winning the nomination. This would have to happen either before Super Tuesday or perhaps immediately afterwards to have any chance of success, though. Rubio will soon have a lot of money (as Bush donors migrate towards his campaign), and in a two-man race perhaps Trump will indeed hit his ceiling. Rubio could start edging Trump out (perhaps by margins of something like 48 percent to 42 percent) and start amassing the delegates he'll need to win the nomination. Stranger things have happened, but for this to work it'd have to take place before Trump piles up such a commanding delegate lead that he'd be uncatchable. In other words, before the end of March (and even that may be too late).
In our second magical-thinking scenario, it is Marco Rubio who announces he's throwing in the towel after placing third in Nevada. This opens up the race for Cruz, who would take on Trump head-to-head. Many of Rubio's voters could migrate to John Kasich, but again some of them care more about winning than voting for a candidate whose views align with theirs perfectly. Some just want to see Trump defeated. These voters would all (reluctantly) decide to back Cruz. Again, if Trump truly does have a ceiling (in a two-man race), then Cruz has the chance of edging him out. Rubio dropping out before Super Tuesday would be the best (and perhaps only) chance of this working, though. Already being called "SEC Tuesday" for the number of Southern states voting, Cruz could win big in the South with the evangelical vote added to the "anybody but Trump" vote. If Cruz won enough states outright, it could put Trump and Cruz roughly even in the delegate race, which would then give Cruz an excellent chance of actually winning the nomination.
You'll notice, however, that those two previous paragraphs are pretty fantastical in their assumptions. Can anyone picture either Rubio or Cruz dropping out any time soon? Even a crushing defeat on Super Tuesday is not going to give either man doubts, because they'll still be trying to convince the media that second place (or third place) is still somehow a "victory." It takes an enormous amount of ego to run for the highest office in the land, and neither Rubio nor Cruz seems to be lacking in the high estimation they hold of themselves. They're not going to quit the race until it becomes painfully obvious that they have zero chance of winning. In fact, the three-man nature of the race gives both Cruz and Rubio a straw to grasp at throughout the entire primary calendar -- because the other bit of magical thinking coming out of Washington these days is that the GOP might have an open convention, where no candidate piles up an outright majority of candidates beforehand. This means anyone could be nominated, even the third-place finisher in the delegate race. It's obvious that this possibility -- far-fetched though it may be -- is likely enough of a reason for both Cruz and Rubio to hang on until the bitter end.
Which brings us back to where we started. The facts are simple, barring Trump crashing and burning on his own (which has yet to happen, of course). Rubio's only chance is Cruz dropping out. Cruz's only chance is Rubio dropping out. Neither man, though, is about to drop out -- and by the time one of them does, it will likely be too late to stop the Trump juggernaut. For those not inclined to believe in magic, this is the hard, cold reality. Donald Trump is within sight of becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, and the window for that to change in any dramatic way is shutting fast.
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