Donald Trump’s big win in Nevada, with Marco Rubio pulling even with or just ahead of Ted Cruz, fuels the conventional wisdom that the Republican presidential contest is now down to a two-man race. However, this year the conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong.
Next Tuesday will test that two-man theory. Ted Cruz, despite third-place finish in South Carolina and a weaker showing in Nevada, is in decent shape for next week’s so-called SEC or Super Tuesday primaries, when 14 states weigh in and a quarter of the Republican delegates are decided. The biggest is his home state of Texas, with 155 delegates. One good night for Cruz, and he could pull ahead of Rubio and rival Trump for overall delegates. So then you’d have a three-way race. But it might not be that simple. Ohio Governor John Kasich is counting on being competitive, conceivably even winning in Vermont or Massachusetts on March 1. He won’t capture many delegates elsewhere but would argue he’s doing better than Rubio. That would keep him politically alive as the race moves into the big Midwestern primaries, including his home state.
That’s the protracted, four-way split. Others are betting there won’t be much of a split at all. Trump, who won Nevada with almost half the votes, has taken three of the first four early-voting states and probably will finish first in the majority of states next week.
Trump could put it away quickly by defeating three remaining rivals in their home states: Cruz in Texas on Tuesday, and on March 15, Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio. That would be game, set, match. Today, Rubio looks like the most probable alternative, with his second-place showing in South Carolina and strong support in Nevada, where he got about a quarter of the vote. He is positioned to run everywhere and each day gains more establishment endorsements and financial support.
With Jeb Bush out of the race, the Rubio forces now believe they have a real shot at beating Trump in Florida, the first of the winner-take-all contests. The young senator would then be in a strong position to challenge Trump in subsequent contests across the country.
But the Cruz and Kasich camps insist that Rubio is overrated and that he has little prospect of winning any of the 27 contests that have been or will be held before March 15. “Marco has said he won’t win a single state before Florida,” notes Jeff Roe, the Cruz campaign manager who believes the Floridian would face “the impossible task of taking on Trump from the left.”
John Weaver, who directs the Kasich campaign, put out a memo this week saying that “Rubio stock is the ultimate insider bubble” and that the return on the more than $50 million spent on his behalf “has been dismal.”
The Cruz strategy to stay viable is to dominate in Texas, beat Trump in a couple other Super Tuesday states and run a solid second ahead of Rubio in places like Georgia, the second-biggest prize on March 1. With proportional representation in most states, he could trail Trump in votes that day and still hold his own in delegates. The Cruz camp argues that his support will continue after March 1, claiming strength in states like Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Missouri, all of which will vote in the following two weeks. The campaign, along with his super PACs, appears to have the resources to compete in many of the March contests.
Kasich needs to do well enough March 1 to be taken seriously in Michigan a week later. That’s when the Midwest starts to flex its delegate muscles. If he can compete with Trump there and capture the winner-take-all primary in his home state the next week, Kasich can carry on. After these results from Nevada, our next clue in the Republican nomination contest will come Thursday, when the candidates will debate in Houston. Trump has reveled in going after Bush and Cruz, sometimes viciously. If Rubio is rising, he will be in Trump’s line of fire, and it’s not at all clear he can handle that.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau