On February 18, 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary election after having maintained a double-digit lead in the polls there for weeks. This was his second loss; he had performed poorly in Iowa as well, not even breaking into the double-digits with his percentile support.
After his poor showings in the first two states, Bill Clinton styled himself as the “Comeback Kid,” and come back he did. He went on to win the Democrat Party nomination and eventually the presidency, pulling his scandal-plagued political career from the brink in an election journey now burnished in our nation’s history.
Though not racked by allegations of extramarital affairs or draft dodging like candidate Bill Clinton, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has a steep mountain to climb. After a terrible debate performance in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, Rubio collapsed, moving from what many thought would be a strong second-place finish to a middling fifth. Some predicted the end of Rubio’s presidential ambitions.
But the young Florida senator is now clawing his way back into contention. He picked up several key endorsements in South Carolina ahead of Saturday’s primary, including that of the state’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, and Senator Tim Scott. His rallies are drawing thousands, his poll numbers are rising, and his strong debate performance last week dispelled much of the concern surrounding his grating moment in New Hampshire. But the question remains whether this momentum will be enough to establish Rubio as the coalition candidate, push Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich out of the race, and unite the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party behind Mr. Rubio’s candidacy.
The answer to this question rests in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. With time running out before the Super Tuesday contests on March 1st, after which nearly a quarter of Republican delegates are awarded, Sen. Rubio needs to catch fire fast. A poor showing in South Carolina leaves Rubio vulnerable in Nevada, where he would need to make an improbable recovery in order to win the delegates he needs on Super Tuesday.
In order to set himself upon a secure path for the presidential nomination, Marco Rubio needs to finish in either first or second place in South Carolina, with an ideal performance leaving him with over a quarter of the votes and a sizable margin between him and his closest competitor for second place, Senator Ted Cruz. Such a strong finish would likely push Governors Bush and Kasich out of the race after Nevada and give Rubio an influx of moderate Republican support in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. It would also imperil Cruz, whose narrow path to the nomination requires him to sweep the conservative-dominated South in order to survive beyond the moderate states further down the primary calendar.1 Strong performances by Rubio in the South would snatch these critical delegates away from Cruz and leave the Texas senator with no choice but to exit the race.
On the other hand, a finish behind Jeb Bush or John Kasich in South Carolina would almost certainly doom Sen. Rubio’s candidacy. A strong finish by either of the governors would keep their campaigns alive and ensure that the GOP field remains crowded well beyond Super Tuesday, a development which would make Donald Trump’s bid for the nomination much more realistic.2 Yet a strong finish by either Bush or Kasich seems out of the question at this point. Mr. Bush’s attempts in recent weeks to rebrand himself as a disruptive, self-confident candidate have come across as stilted and has turned off many of his supporters, who feel that the former Florida governor’s preoccupation with battling Donald Trump has taken him off-message. Also, a rumor circulated this week that Bush’s campaign is facing major financial troubles and may not pay its staff after Saturday. Though spokespeople for the Bush campaign have vehemently denied this rumor, that it got traction in the first place is illustrative of the general view that Gov. Bush’s candidacy is doomed to fail.
Though Ohio Governor John Kasich appears to be faring better than Mr. Bush, his campaign also faces some major difficulties. Having spent almost all of his time and money on New Hampshire, Gov. Kasich has almost no national campaign infrastructure and therefore must depend almost entirely upon momentum to power his candidacy over the next few weeks. Though some polls show him in the double digits in South Carolina, his post-New Hampshire bump appears to have stalled. Only one of the last eight polls conducted in South Carolina puts Kasich in the top three, and none of these polls give him a lead over Marco Rubio.
Taking third place behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, while difficult to overcome, might keep Marco Rubio’s campaign alive just long enough to pick up some support from the floundering governors and make a late delegate push in well-educated coastal states. A strong third-place showing which leaves Rubio and Cruz in the upper teens or mid-twenties and their nearest competitor in the single digits would spell doom for Bush and Kasich and give Rubio a decent push going into the Super Tuesday primaries. By contrast, finishing barely above the governors would prolong their campaigns, making it harder for Rubio to attract moderates and mainstream Republicans to his campaign before the March 1st delegate dump.
My prediction for South Carolina
Most likely: Trump takes first; Rubio takes second
Donald Trump has been on top of the polls in South Carolina for weeks, and it is hard for me to see the state of the race change enough between now and tomorrow’s primary to put Cruz or Rubio on top in South Carolina. Trump has consistently drawn over 30 percent in the state; at this moment, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Mr. Trump with a 13-point lead over his nearest competitor. Though Trump dropping to second or third is not completely out of the question—more on this later—it is not likely.
Though Ted Cruz currently holds the second-place slot in the RealClearPolitics average, I believe Marco Rubio is more likely to take second in tomorrow’s primary for three main reasons:
- Momentum: In a race with so many contenders, the actual numbers posted by the candidates in polls have little predictive value for their final performance. This fundamental inaccuracy was clear back in New Hampshire, where Marco Rubio’s final performance came in several points below his final polling average, and in Iowa, where Cruz defeated Trump in spite of running a deficit in the final state polls.More predictive are the trends which the polls uncover. The final tracking poll data in New Hampshire, released only hours before the primary, showed Marco Rubio’s numbers enter a sharp decline. Both Cruz and Rubio surged in the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, and they turned out stronger performances than many had anticipated.According to the most recent data, Rubio is surging in South Carolina. An ARG tracking poll showed the Florida senator gain nearly ten points over the seven days of polling, while Cruz and Trump’s numbers stayed relatively flat. Another poll, conducted Thursday night and Friday morning (2/18-2/19), puts Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio within the margin of error in first and second place respectively. Though Cruz still has the advantage in the overall polling average, Rubio leads his colleague in the Senate in the three most recent polls by an average of approximately five percent.
- Endorsements: Though it is debatable just how much of an impact endorsements have upon primary contests, especially in such an anti-establishment election cycle, Marco Rubio has picked up the most sought-after endorsements in the state. Governor Nikki Haley, whose approval among S.C. Republicans is north of 70 percent, and Senator Tim Scott have both put their weight behind Rubio’s candidacy, as has conservative firebrand and U.S. Representative Trey Gowdy. Though these endorsements may not move voters who are firmly attached to a different candidate, they could help Rubio draw undecided voters to his column.
- Top second-choice: In all of the recent polls I analyzed, Marco Rubio took first or second place as the second-choice candidate of South Carolina voters. This metric is important for two reasons: First, it shows that Rubio’s potential turnout base in Saturday’s primary is larger than those of his rivals. Unlike Trump and to some extent Cruz, Rubio has a broad appeal and is thus more likely to outperform his current standing in the polls than his fellow contenders. Second, it indicates that Rubio is likely the top choice for strategic voters, people who go to the polls supporting a lower-tier candidate—like Bush, Kasich, or Carson—but decide to throw their support behind a first-tier candidate with a more realistic shot at a strong performance.
This is not to say that taking second will be easy for Rubio. South Carolina has a similar percentage of evangelical voters to Iowa, where Cruz harnessed strong turnout among Christian conservatives to power a decisive first-place finish. Unlike Iowa, however, South Carolina contains a sizable contingent of moderates and mainstream Republican voters, groups from which Rubio and the governors draw a large portion of their support.
Probability: 60 percent (Trump 1st, Rubio 2nd); 30 percent (Trump 1st, Cruz 2nd); 10 percent (other)
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Case in point: Cruz took first place in uber-conservative, evangelical Iowa, but did relatively poorly in New Hampshire. Super Tuesday contains several states (including Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas) which bear a close similarity to Iowa demographically, with pluralities of voters identifying themselves as “very conservative” or evangelical. Beyond March 1st, these states disappear from the calendar, leaving moderate states like Ohio, Florida, and New York, where Cruz’s anti-establishment schtick has little appeal. ^
- Though most Republican voters view Mr. Trump unfavorably, the real estate magnate maintains a deep but narrow core of support. In a one-on-one matchup with Rubio, Cruz, or even Kasich, Trump cannot hope to survive. In a sharply divided field with four or five candidates, however, Mr. Trump can build a significant lead, capturing not only a plurality of delegates from the early states but also some of the winner-take-all states later in the primary process, such as Florida on March 15th. In other words, Donald Trump’s best shot at the nomination is a fragmented field. ^