Anyone could have predicted a strong finish for Donald Trump on Tuesday. In the first major delegate dump of the Republican Party’s nomination process, the New York real estate magnate and businessman racked up over 250 delegates, leaving himself with just over a quarter of the delegates he needs in order to capture the GOP nomination.
Yet predictions by the New York Times and others that Mr. Trump was on course to win “every state except Texas” did not come to fruition. Trump stumbled in multiple states, ceding Oklahoma and Alaska to Ted Cruz and taking a distant third in Minnesota, where Rubio found his first victory. He also lost Texas, where two final polls showed him within three points of Sen. Cruz, by nearly seventeen points. Though a loss for Mr. Trump on the Texas senator’s home turf was certainly not unexpected, the margin of victory asserted Cruz’s strength at a crucial time. As CNN reported Thursday evening, Mr. Cruz “was prepared to drop out of the Republican presidential race” if he lost his home state on Super Tuesday. Doing so, of course, would have tilted the race in Mr. Rubio’s favor; according to the national polls I have consulted, including this one from MSNBC taken in mid-February, a plurality of Cruz supporters view Marco Rubio as their second-choice candidate.
With the wind at his back once more, Ted Cruz has little incentive to exit the Republican nomination battle before the first winner-take-all states vote on March 15th, a reality which has effectively foreclosed the possibility of winnowing the field and massing a strong anti-Trump coalition behind a single candidate prior to the crucial Florida and Ohio primaries. Coupled with John Kasich’s strong display in moderate Vermont, where he nearly defeated Mr. Trump, and Marco Rubio’s heartbreaking near-miss in Virginia, Cruz’s performance on Tuesday has turned the fight to be Trump’s foil into a complete muddle.
Each of the remaining candidates now has a strong reason to remain in the race. Having won four states now, including Texas, the largest delegate prize so far in the GOP contest, Ted Cruz is within 100 delegates of overtaking Mr. Trump and would appear, on the face of the numbers, to be best suited to do so. Yet he has only managed to defeat the New York businessman in two southern states, a stark disappointment when viewed in light of the tremendous demographic advantages that Cruz, who forged strong ties with evangelical voters and grassroots conservative leaders early in his campaign, should have had over the irreverent crudity of Mr. Trump. The Texas senator also faces a difficult primary calendar ahead, as the states beyond March 15th tend to be much more moderate and less evangelical than the southern states which voted on Super Tuesday.
John Kasich has not won a state, but his approachable, do-no-harm campaign style, joined with his lengthy career as a U.S. House Representative and his experience as the current governor of Ohio, brings with it a strong appeal to moderate Republicans, particularly in the Northeast, where Kasich’s folksy positivity has proven to be an effective foil to Mr. Trump’s bombast. His path to the nomination, however, is practically impossible. Even with a win in Ohio, not enough delegates will remain on the table for Mr. Kasich to clinch the nomination outright. Yet if Republicans are most concerned with stopping Trump, Kasich’s strength in the Northeast and in his home state of Ohio, where he is polling quite strongly, will be crucial in this effort.
Had only a small fraction of the votes cast on Super Tuesday shifted in his favor, Marco Rubio could have had a much better night. He closed a projected 15-point gap between himself and Donald Trump in Virginia to only a 2.8 percent deficit, but despite this feat, the media narrative following Super Tuesday portrayed his performance there as yet another disappointment. Another few thousand votes for Rubio in Texas and Alabama would have nudged him over the states’ qualifying thresholds, granting him a significant share of the delegates from each. Yet even in view of his troubles on Super Tuesday, Rubio remains the most broadly appealing candidate in the Republican field. Unlike Kasich and Cruz, who draw their support from particularized constituencies, Sen. Rubio has managed to strike an artful balance, mobilizing both conservatives and moderates behind his candidacy. When the field winnows, this broad appeal places Rubio in an excellent position to absorb the support of fallen candidates and build upon his already significant coalition. But barring a rapid narrowing of the field, it appears that the Florida senator will be unable to deepen his support in time to mount a serious challenge to Mr. Trump.
With Kasich, Cruz, and Rubio all maintaining some modicum of strength, it is unlikely that any of them are going to drop out prior to March 15th. At this point, the best strategy for this hopelessly divided field is to play to its strengths as an anti-Trump unit. In a speech Thursday at the University of Utah, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney excoriated Mr. Trump and offered this explicit endorsement of a unified front against the current GOP frontrunner:
If the other candidates [Kasich, Rubio, and Cruz] can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.
Though cooperation between Kasich, Rubio, and Cruz to defeat Trump would be ideal at this point, the potential for self-interested deviation from a unified strategy is high. The Cruz campaign appears to be taking the first step down this road, with senior campaign aides revealing Wednesday that the Texas senator plans to “actively campaign in Florida” and “make a strong play” for the crucial winner-take-all state. This strategy, if successful, would be a huge gamble for Cruz. A loss in Florida would certainly push Marco Rubio out of the race, but it would also give Donald Trump a critical win. And though Cruz may inherit most of Mr. Rubio’s support, his appeal is much narrower than that of his colleague in the Senate. As the primary race moves to the moderate coastal states after March 15th, Mr. Cruz will be much less formidable than Mr. Rubio in the battle against the Trump juggernaut. One writer on HotAir.com expressed this point particularly well: “Third place in Florida gets Cruz nothing except the satisfaction of having sunk the one guy in the race who’s probably best equipped to hold Trump’s margins down in the blue and purple states to come.”
The division and chaos which remains in the GOP race can only work to Mr. Trump’s advantage, and it is for this reason that I believe that the current frontrunner did his best on Super Tuesday by doing worse than expected. A Trump sweep in the South and a strong performance in Texas would have pushed Ted Cruz out of the race and given Marco Rubio a shot in the arm going into the critical Florida primary on March 15th. It also would have added a new sense of urgency to the counter-Trump offensive, potentially encouraging John Kasich to throw in with Mr. Rubio after the vote in Ohio and narrow the race to a climactic two-man showdown. But by doing just well enough on Super Tuesday to give Mr. Cruz an opening while maintaining his dominance over the race, Donald Trump has kept the race divided at a crucial time. Unless the rest of the field can unite to stop him, Mr. Trump just might win the Republican nomination race.