The silver-bullet explanation for the WSJ poll was that it was conducted after the debate and might be capturing a backlash to Trump over his comments about Bush and Iraq. That’s possible. Also possible: It’s an outlier, which I think is probably correct. The silver-bullet explanation for today’s ARG data is obvious, that Nikki Haley’s endorsement has given Rubio a shot in the arm and put some distance behind him in second place, at least temporarily while the buzz around the news last. That seems plausible. What doesn’t seem so plausible is Kasich at 15 percent, two points ahead of … Cruz. ARG’s not the only pollster to have Kasich in double digits in SC, but no one else has him as high as 15 or Cruz as low as 13. On the contrary, Cruz is averaging north of 17 percent lately while Kasich is plodding along at a hair under 10. If ARG’s wrong about that, why should we trust their data on Rubio?
As noted in the last post, though, even a third-place finish for Rubio in South Carolina is tolerable if it helps clear his lane before the SEC primary. Knock Jeb out, push Kasich out of the spotlight, and Rubio can keep pace with Trump and Cruz in the delegate contest as the race picks up next month. Arguably that’s the most significant thing about Haley’s endorsement — not that it’s going to deliver a bunch more votes to Rubio but that it’s a sign that influential members of the party have finally left Jeb for dead and are starting to swing behind Rubio as the center-right candidate:
Indeed, Rubio has greatly increased his endorsement pace since the Iowa caucuses, picking up 42 weighted endorsement points1 in the past two-and-a-half weeks, according to the FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker. That’s nearly half of the 85 points he has overall. All the other candidates who remain in the race have received only 4 endorsement points combined since the Iowa caucuses. The second-place candidate, Jeb Bush, has 51 points, but most of those came early in the campaign, when Bush looked far more formidable; he’s earned just 17 points since September…
And Rubio’s post-Iowa uptick is extra good news for him: History has shown that newer endorsements are more predictive of success than stale ones.
Based on FiveThirtyEight’s weighting, Rubio is actually ahead of Reagan’s endorsement pace in 1980 right now. Some prominent Bush backers are also beginning to consider life after Jeb:
“I’m not seeing a lot of movement there,” Dole says. “He’s got Lindsey down there helping him, and his brother came in to help him, and he’s still at about what, 10 percent? Which is way behind top three.”…
“If it’s not Jeb, I hope it’s Rubio,” he tells me. It’s a sign that the GOP establishment may be starting to acknowledge its options are narrowing, and beginning the process of coalescing behind a candidate. In the context of the increasingly vicious fight for second place unfolding between Rubio and Cruz, Dole says he hopes Rubio prevails. Last month, Dole made waves when he said that he would prefer Donald Trump to Cruz as the Republican nominee.
“I hope Rubio finishes second,” he says. “We have to have a nominee, Republicans, who can bring the party together and reach out to moderates and independents and not just the far right-wing. I don’t know whether Trump could bring the party together,” he says. “I’ve never met him, but he’s probably a good person. I never meet rich people…” He trails off.
Still more encouragement for Rubio: Although there aren’t many Catholic votes to be had over the next three weeks, there are plenty out there in blue and purple states after March 15th and those states are free to award their delegates winner-take-all. Rubio’s the only Catholic among the top three, and if Trump’s fracas with the Pope turns some Catholics against him, Rubio stands to be the beneficiary. All of that assumes a lot — Rubio making this a bona fide three-man race soon, Trump hitting a hard ceiling on his support — but it’s not impossible to imagine a Rubio surge as more party brokers like Mitt Romney inevitably line up behind him. Rubio’s not in the position right now that he wanted to be in when he hatched his 3-2-1 strategy, but after his meltdown in New Hampshire, he’s probably in the best position he could have hoped for a week ago.
As for Cruz, like I say, I think ARG’s numbers are an outlier. But even if he finishes comfortably ahead of Kasich, finishing third behind Rubio in a state that Cruz was supposed to contend for would be a discouraging sign ahead of the SEC primary. His path to the nomination depends on piling up delegates in those states and then fending off Trump or Rubio or whoever in the later blue states as they try to chip away at his lead. If he disappoints in the SEC races too, it may all but end his chances of winning the nomination before the convention. And if Rubio performs comparatively well, suddenly Cruz will be under heavy pressure to get out and let anti-Trumpers have a two-man race between Trump and Rubio on the theory that the two-thirds of the party that isn’t supporting Trump will unite behind the latter. It’s weird to think that Cruz, who was talking about a two-man race with Trump the day after New Hampshire, could find himself on the outside looking in at a two-man race between Trump and Rubio three weeks later, but it’s not impossible. Major bummer.
Here’s Haley’s endorsement ad for Rubio. Exit quotation from a rally earlier this afternoon: “This new group of conservatives taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial.”