On Sunday afternoon, Florida Senator Marco Rubio swept all 23 of Puerto Rico’s delegates, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate this cycle to win an outright majority of the vote in a primary election. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Sen. Rubio hauled in nearly three-quarters of the vote, easily surpassing the 50 percent winner-take-all threshold. Real estate magnate and businessman Donald Trump took second place, with 13 percent of the vote.
Mr. Rubio’s victory could not come at a more opportune time. After disappointing performances on Super Tuesday and in Saturday’s primaries, the Florida senator desperately needed some good news to assure voters and donors that his campaign is not failing. Though not a U.S. state, Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, which means that its residents—as U.S. citizens—may participate in nominating candidates for president, though they are unable to vote in the November general election. Rubio’s strong showing on the island is an indicator of his broad appeal among Hispanic voters and of his strength in the winner-take-all primary in Florida, a state which over one million Puerto Ricans call home.
Yet with a resurgent Cruz and a still dominant Trump in the foreground, Mr. Rubio’s path to the nomination has narrowed considerably. Though Florida is the young senator’s home state, he has trailed Donald Trump in the last three polls taken there, though the most recent poll available—commissioned by an anti-Trump super PAC—shows Rubio quickly closing the gap. But even if Mr. Rubio succeeds in taking Florida, there is no guarantee that his victory will cause voters to consolidate behind his candidacy. If the delegate distribution we have seen so far in the race holds until March 15th, a win in Florida would still leave Rubio with fewer delegates than both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump. And in the context of Cruz’s unexpectedly strong performances on Super Tuesday and Saturday, it is unlikely that a victory in Florida for Mr. Rubio would force his Senate colleague out of the race. It will take a significant shift in the state of the race—Rubio victories on March 8th in Michigan and Idaho, for example—to dislodge the growing consensus among Republican primary voters that Mr. Cruz is the most viable anti-Trump candidate and setup a comeback for Mr. Rubio’s candidacy.
In order to survive, the Florida senator’s campaign will need to parlay his sweeping victory in Puerto Rico into a compelling narrative as to why he is a better alternative to Mr. Trump than Ted Cruz. Mr. Rubio needs to convince late-deciding voters and Cruz supporters that he is the best chance to defeat Trump, particularly as the primary calendar turns to well-educated coastal states and the moderate Midwest. But if Cruz can defeat Rubio in Michigan, this argument becomes much harder to make, and Florida may slip out of reach as mainstream Republicans, terrified of the prospect of Donald Trump earning the party’s nomination, abandon Rubio and throw in with Cruz in a last-ditch effort to stop the Trump juggernaut.
Stay tuned for an analysis of the March 8th primary results and, as the winner-take-all primaries on March 15th approach, predictions of the most likely outcomes!
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