At first glance, the MSM narrative that Donald Trump has the Republican presidential nomination locked up or that in any event Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is in a worse position than Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) might seem logical. Cruz has more states and more delegates. That logic, however, is faulty.
First, let’s understand Trump is not expanding his base. “Trump has received only 34 percent of the Republican vote, aggregated across all primaries and caucuses to have voted so far,” explains Nate Silver. “He did not really improve on that figure on Super Tuesday; Trump had a combined 33 percent of the vote through the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada); he got 34 percent in Super Tuesday states themselves.”
Second, Cruz did not win where he needed to and is running out of states in which to rack up delegates. Now come the winner-take-all states, beginning on March 15, where only Missouri seems to be within Cruz’s reach. Silver has it right here again: “The dilemma is that while Cruz has done better so far, winning more states (including three on Tuesday), votes and delegates than Rubio, there’s reason to think Rubio will do better going forward. In contrast to Cruz, who has benefited from a calendar full of states with lots of evangelical voters, Rubio’s best states are probably ahead of him and he has higher favorability ratings than Cruz.”
Cruz’s narrow state path (through the SEC) becomes even more problematic when one considers he still has not made inroads with somewhat-conservative and moderate voters, or locked down evangelical Christians. (For example, he managed to come in third in Georgia and win no other SEC state.) He did not solve the problem that became evident in South Carolina: He loses to Trump and sometimes to Rubio with the group (evangelicals) who are supposed to be his strongest supporters. That did not change on Tuesday, it became even more apparent. (Alaska is not exactly a favorite residence for Southern evangelicals.)
Third, the best opportunity to “reset” the race comes in the best possible place for Rubio, his home state of Florida. Unlike Cruz, Rubio is well connected with all factions of the GOP in Florida (insiders, tea party groups) and has appeal with Hispanic Republicans as well. Cruz’s hard-line stance on immigration (now extending to opposition to legal immigration) is not likely to sit well with tens of thousands of Hispanics in the Miami-Dade area and elsewhere. Coupled with Illinois, a moderate state with 69 delegates, Rubio could make up lost ground quickly.
Fourth, Rubio will get the benefit now of millions upon millions of dollars from #NeverTrump forces who recognize Florida (and to a lesser extent Illinois) is ground zero in the effort to stop Trump. In the next 10 days, huge resources not heretofore deployed against Trump will work to remind voters who Trump is and how he really treats the little guy. In this regard, Cruz’s months-long courtship of Trump works against him, underscoring his lack of moral spine and his opportunism.
The negative attacks are clearly having some effect on Trump, as evidenced by Rubio’s near-win in Virginia and Trump’s four losses. Whether you think Rubio should have started earlier or whether you recognize that was impossible so long as the Jeb Bush super PAC was dumping negative ads on him, it is hard to argue that millions spent in a concentrated time span in key states will not have some impact on Trump, the only candidate running ahead of Rubio in Florida.
Looking at the delegates, the primary calendar ahead and the addition of anti-Trump money (after a night in which Trump lost four states, three more than some predicted), you have to conclude things do not look as secure for Trump as headlines would have it, nor do things look as bad for Rubio as pundits are saying. And while he won three states, Super Tuesday is likely the high point for Cruz. He surely will want to press on to the convention but the shift from winning the primary outright to locking down states for the convention tells you his night was not as good as it needed to be. In any event, we have a long, long way to go, and no one has this race locked up.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Jennifer Rubin