It’s almost here.
Ohio and Florida, the biggest winner-take-all prizes of the Republican primary calendar, vote on Tuesday in what will be a make-or-break moment for all of the candidates in this race. For businessman Donald Trump, the current frontrunner, a decisive finish on Tuesday will dramatically reduce his risk of facing a brokered convention in July. For Ted Cruz, strong showings in the other March 15th primaries—Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina—would prove the strength of his candidacy at a crucial time. And for John Kasich and Marco Rubio, the 15th is a battle for survival.
No matter what happens on March 15th, the primary contests that day will dramatically reshape the presidential race. Not even Mr. Trump, who holds a significant delegate lead over his nearest competitor, is well-positioned at this point. He has yet to demonstrate that he is capable of building the consensus he needs in order to become the undisputed Republican nominee; in fact, he is barely on-target in the delegate race so far, with FiveThirtyEight estimating that he has only a seven percent cushion between his current delegate count and his delegate target for each state. With victories in Florida and Ohio, Trump would dramatically improve his chances of winning the nomination. According to the Washington Post, with the delegates accorded by these states in hand, Mr. Trump could win the nomination outright simply by picking up a little more than half of the delegates from the remaining contests.1 But losses in Florida and Ohio would force the New York real estate mogul to win nearly 70 percent of the remaining delegates in order to wrap up the nomination. Though an outright win would still be statistically possible in this scenario, it is hard for me to imagine Mr. Trump losing both Ohio and Florida and then creating the momentum to increase his delegate haul from 45 percent—what he has managed to earn so far—to 70 percent of the outstanding delegates and win the nomination.
Even losing one of the two winner-take-all states on the 15th would leave Trump with a difficult mathematical hurdle to overcome. A win in Florida coupled with a loss to John Kasich in Ohio—the more likely win-loss outcome—would require the Donald to earn nearly three-fifths of the remaining delegates in order to clinch the nomination. But in such a scenario, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is unlikely to remain in the race, and the polls I have examined indicate that most Rubio supporters will align with Ted Cruz, not Mr. Trump, if their top choice withdraws from contention. This shift in the race would dramatically strengthen Sen. Cruz’s campaign, thereby denying Mr. Trump of crucial delegates in states where he might have divided and conquered a more crowded field.
As Trump seeks to ease his path to the nomination with victories in Florida and Ohio, Marco Rubio and John Kasich are fighting tooth-and-nil to win in their home states. Both candidates recognize that losing on their home turf will doom their candidacies and have planned their schedules accordingly, clearing their schedules of events in Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina in favor of a bevy of stump speeches at home. And both candidates have doubled down on the prospect of a home state victory. At a campaign event last week in Troy, Michigan, Gov. Kasich declared, “I’m going to win Ohio. End of story.” And Marco Rubio, at a rally on a football field in Hialeah, Florida, implored the crowd to support his candidacy, exclaiming, “We have to win here in Florida!”
Given the polling available in Ohio thus far, I think a Kasich victory there is a foregone conclusion. Even before he posted middling performances on Super Tuesday and in several of the early primary states, his campaign was positioning for a first-place finish in Ohio, garnering the endorsement of the state’s Republican Party in early January. Though the polls show him neck-and-neck with Donald Trump, they also reveal Kasich’s incredibly high favorability in Ohio and Rubio’s recent decline there, both of which will play to the governor’s benefit. According to a recent PPP survey, 70 percent (!!!) of Ohio Republican primary voters viewed Kasich favorably, while just under half see Mr. Trump in a favorable light. The same poll also found that Rubio supporters view Kasich as a much better choice than the Donald, with three-quarters saying that they would support the governor over Mr. Trump. And with Marco Rubio himself encouraging his supporters in Ohio to back Kasich in order to stop Trump (yes, you read that right), Trump will be hard-pressed to stem the flow of strategic voters and late-deciders toward their popular state governor, who already will be difficult to defeat by the very nature of his home field advantage and the institutional supports it provides to his campaign.
Marco Rubio is in a much more precarious position. According to the RealClearPolitics average of Florida polls, the young senator trails Donald Trump by a double-digit margin. Though recent polls appear to show this gap closing, it does not seem to be closing fast enough. But one of the enduring lessons of this cycle, one which we learned once again just last week with Cruz’s unexpected victory in Oklahoma and Bernie Sanders’ upset in Michigan, is that polls are merely snapshots in time. Often, trends in the polling numbers matter far more than the numbers themselves. In Virginia, which held its primary on March 1st, the Florida senator trailed his rival by double-digits in the polls conducted just the previous week, but was trending upward relative to earlier polling. He ended up finishing within three percent of Mr. Trump, nearly ten points above his RealClearPolitics average.
As with Gov. Kasich in Ohio, before we write off Sen. Rubio, we must account for the tremendous benefits of his home-field advantage in Florida. First, like Kasich, Rubio will be the beneficiary of the vast majority of strategic votes, since he is widely perceived as being the candidate best-suited to defeating Donald Trump in Florida. Second, as a U.S. Senator, Rubio has won a statewide election before. Like Kasich, he can tap into his deep roots in the state and his network of political connections from his time as the Speaker of the Florida House and from his Senate campaign to build a formidable ground operation and get out the vote. And third, Florida’s vast contingent of Hispanic voters might give Rubio a huge boost. According to a new poll of likely GOP primary voters, over three-fifths of Hispanic Republicans support Rubio. With strong turnout, Hispanics could drive Mr. Rubio to victory.
For these reasons, I give Rubio a slight chance to create an upset in Florida, though the race seems to be in Trump’s column. Working in his home state gives him a number of crucial advantages over Donald Trump, as I have just described. But if he loses his home state, he will almost certainly exit the race.
If Rubio wins in Florida, what will happen to his campaign relies heavily upon Ted Cruz’s performance on March 15th. Cruz has no opportunity to win in either Florida or Ohio, so his only chances to pick up delegates will come from North Carolina, Illinois, and Missouri. Illinois in particular would be a big prize for Sen. Cruz. Its delegates are allocated on a winner-take-all basis at the congressional district level as well as statewide, which means that the statewide winner is usually well-positioned to scoop up most or, with a decisive performance, all of the available delegates. In order to post a strong performance here and defeat Trump, Cruz will need to fend off Kasich, whose poll numbers in the state have climbed into the upper teens over the past few days.
Defeating Trump in Illinois would add impetus to Cruz’s message that he is the only candidate capable of taking on Donald Trump in a variety of settings across the country. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell at this point exactly what is going to happen in Illinois. Though Trump retained a double-digit advantage in both of the last two polls taken there, neither poll had priced in the collapse of Marco Rubio’s support which we saw in the March 8th primaries. If recent national polls are a good indication of where these disillusioned Rubio supporters are going to throw their weight, Mr. Cruz will pick up steam and pose a real challenge to Donald Trump. If Cruz can engineer a victory in Illinois, it would be a severe blow to Mr. Trump’s prospects and an affirmation of the Texas senator’s claim to the anti-Trump mantle.
Missouri is a better opportunity for Mr. Cruz. A significant share of its electorate identifies as evangelical, and Christian conservative darling Rick Santorum wrapped up every single county back in 2012. This year, Missouri will award most of its delegates by congressional district, with a delegate bonus given to whoever wins the statewide vote. Victory is definitely possible for Cruz here, with a new poll showing him within seven points of Mr. Trump.
Of all of the March 15th primaries, North Carolina is probably the least important. It is a proportional primary with no qualifying threshold, which means that every candidate will be able to receive some delegates regardless of the outcome. Delivering a win in North Carolina therefore would not make much of a difference in the delegate count for Mr. Cruz, but it would deliver a symbolic blow to Donald Trump. The polling data available is wildly inconsistent, but my best guess is that the state will fall to Trump, with Cruz taking a close second.
Though I have mentioned some of my predictions for March 15th throughout this piece, here are my state-by-state calls:
- North Carolina: Toss-up, edge to Trump. Cruz 2nd.
- Florida: Trump win. Rubio 2nd.
- Ohio: Kasich win, Trump 2nd.
- Missouri: Toss-up, edge to Cruz. Trump 2nd.
- Illinois: Trump win. Cruz 2nd.
My drop-out predictions:
- Kasich: Loss in Ohio.
- Rubio: Loss in Florida.
- Cruz, Trump: Safe; will not drop out any time soon.
As more polling comes in over the next few days, I will update these predictions via the Restore America Project’s Twitter feed.
Stay tuned for an in-depth analysis of the results on March 15th (“Super Tuesday 2.0”) and what they mean for the remaining months of the Republican primary race. I am also keeping an eye on the Democratic contests and will keep you updated if the race begins to shift from its long-anticipated trajectory toward a Clinton coronation!
- The Washington Post article I cited for this data does not take into account the delegates which were awarded on March 10th by Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, and Hawaii. However, Trump’s delegate draw from all of the preceding contests—45 percent—only slightly lags his performance on the 10th, where he won a little more than 47 percent of the delegates at stake. Fortunately, this difference is small enough that the Post‘s dated estimates will work just fine for our purposes here. ^