As the polls open in the Palmetto State we may, just possibly, be getting down to the distilled, final version of the GOP primary and the final dash to the nomination. Pretty much every one of the candidates is insisting that they’re in it for the long haul, but those are the same type of comments we’ve heard from each of the now suspended campaigns right up until the polls closed on previous contests and they packed it in. One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that South Carolina is once again looking like a race for second or third rather than the top spot. The closest poll we’ve seen as the race drew to a close was the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist survey which had Trump up by “only” five over Ted Cruz, 28 – 23, with Rubio trailing 8 points further back at 15. But that’s part of the same WSJ conglomeration which showed Cruz in 1st place nationally when three other major polls in the same 24 hour period showed the businessman still holding a very comfortable lead. (Insert large grain of salt here.) At essentially the same moment, CNN’s poll had Trump up by 16 and Fox showed a 13 point lead.
Aside from tonight’s winner (barring a major collapse in polling science) the first person to watch is obviously Cruz. While you don’t hear them saying it publicly, Cruz really doesn’t need to win here or even in Nevada for that matter. As long as he can consistently keep scoring second or third place finishes up through Super Tuesday, the Texas Senator really just needs to keep his powder dry and wait for the establishment candidates to finish dropping out. Then he can hope to take the largest share of the pie in a three way race through the middle stretch of primary states, including some winner take all contests as we move further down the line.
That brings us back to the Marcomentium story line. Unfortunately, even if he succeeds in knocking out the rest of the establishment lane contenders, he winds up working the same strategy as Cruz. But if he can edge out Ted for a second place finish (a possibility I can’t totally write off this morning) he’s in a lot better shape. They both want a head to head race with Trump, working on the assumption that his ceiling is below fifty, but the longer they battle it out, the longer Trump can keep scoring from the free throw line.
So what happens to the rest of the establishment lane? The big story tonight has to be Jeb Bush. If he can’t muster a third place finish (and the polls certainly seem to be dubious of that prospect at best) how does he justify pushing on tomorrow? We already saw leaks indicating that the campaign was running on fumes, though a Bush spokesperson quickly denied them. But before that dust devil had fully passed by, another story broke out indicating that many Bush staffers were already shopping their resumes around in Florida. (Politico)
Several Jeb Bush campaign workers are already shopping their résumés with Florida political consultants as expectations mount inside his team that their candidate won’t push on after South Carolina.
“I can unequivocally tell you that people are looking for work, because they say they’ve been led to believe that they won’t have a job because the campaign won’t be around any longer or their jobs won’t because the campaign won’t have any money,” said one Republican who helps run one of the Florida campaigns and who is a Bush donor.
Four separate and senior political consultants in Florida said they have been negotiating with potential employees who are preparing for the end of the Bush campaign. The entreaties for new work from these Bush staffers — most of whom are not top-level campaign hands — have markedly increased apace with signs that the former Florida governor is under pressure to exit the race after Saturday’s GOP primary if he performs poorly.
Until such time as we actually hear it from either Jeb himself or one of his designated surrogates we’ll have to take him at his word, but if Bush can’t blunt Rubio’s recent groundswell and come in third it’s difficult to see how he’s going to attract either the money or the popular support to move on to Nevada. (And he’s not exactly catching on fire there so far either.) If Kasich manages to beat him in South Carolina it’s just got to be over. Kasich doesn’t seem to be spending much cash and is earning a lot of free media coverage, so I’m less inclined to think that he’ll drop. I’m not really counting Carson in the formula at this point because he’s still hanging on to some cash and seems to be doggedly determined to hang around. Also, even if he suspends his campaign he’s not locking up that many voters anyway.
Bottom line: if we’ve still got five or six candidates after Nevada (which you almost have to think is improbable, but who knows in a wild year like this) there seems to be little standing between Trump and a massive lead after Super Tuesday. Is the contested convention theory looking any more likely to you at this point? Hugh Hewitt seems to see it as inevitable now.
Not endorsing. This is going to an open convention. I am staying Switzerland. All candidates welcome here https://t.co/YxXAt2P0DX
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) February 20, 2016