House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy: There's a better than 50% chance that Trump will be the nominee

Skip to 2:30 of the clip. What he’s saying is prosaic, but just the fact that it’s the House Majority Leader saying it is noteworthy — as is the speed with which McCarthy responds when he’s asked if he can “work with” Trump. Oh yeah, he says. No problem. When he’s asked about working with Cruz, his response isn’t as fast. The man knows a “malleable” partner when he sees one.

I’d describe Trump’s chances not so much as better than 50 percent than as better than 80 percent. Right now there’s no reason to think Cruz won’t be effectively washed up at the end of Super Tuesday. Trump has now beaten him in a southern state and he’s done so handily, by outpolling Cruz among his base of evangelicals. He leads in polling of most southern Super Tuesday states as I write this. If Rubio had flamed out on Saturday night, you’d have an argument for why Cruz is poised for a comeback — with Rubio DOA, some of his conservative voters will start migrating towards Cruz in the name of stopping Trump on March 1st. Instead the opposite happened, with Rubio edging Cruz out for second and now looking poised to compete with him for second place next Tuesday as well. Cruz will find the courage to go on if he wins Texas, but if that’s his only win next week then his “dominate the south” strategy will have been a major failure. He’ll be the de facto third-place guy in a three-man field with the race headed towards more moderate states, which means he’ll have no realistic path. I wouldn’t even call him a sure thing in Texas. In the last poll taken there, a week before Iowa, he led Trump by just five points. Where are those numbers now, with Trump coming off two big wins and another one likely tomorrow night in Nevada?

Frankly, if you’re a pure anti-Trumper who’s happy with either Cruz or Rubio, you should probably hope Trump stuns Cruz in Texas as that’s the one thing that might force Cruz from the race and finally give the rest of the party a shot at beating Trump one-on-one. That’s been the magic-bullet solution to Trumpism touted by his opponents from the beginning; Jeb Bush’s entire “nuke Rubio” strategy was based on that idea, that if only he could clear the rest of the field and force Republicans to make a binary choice between him and Trump, they’d come home and choose the truer conservative. Given Cruz’s failure in South Carolina and the fact that his strongest states come sooner than Rubio’s do on the calendar, it’s Rubio who’s going to end up with the closest thing to a true one-on-one with Trump. And Rubio’s always been the guy who, in theory, could pull from the center and the right to form the sort of coalition capable of outnumbering Trump’s. He’s your best bet in a two-man race. Increasingly, though, I’m not convinced that even Rubio will win head-to-head. Partly that’s a function of simple math: Trump will have piled up a lot of delegates by the time Rubio gets his chance on March 15th, so Rubio will not only be playing catch-up, he’ll have to reverse some serious Trump momentum. But partly it’s a function of my skepticism that Rubio’s going to consolidate as much of the party as he thinks. Many conservatives seem to believe that the two-thirds of the GOP electorate that’s been voting for other candidates so far are all (or mostly) firm anti-Trump voters who’ll simply gravitate to whatever alternative remains after the field winnows. I think that’s silly. Even among Cruz’s conservative voters, there are some who’d prefer the populist border hawk Trump to the establishment Rubio:

While Cruz supporters share his deep conservative values, they also have other concerns that align them more with Trump, especially if the true conservative were to step out of the race. Fifteen percent of Cruz supporters want someone outside the establishment; 24 percent are angry with the federal government and politicians in Washington; 24 percent want to deport illegal immigrants; and 23 percent want a temporary ban on Muslims.

If Cruz were to leave the race, many (some?) of these voters would fall in with Trump, not Rubio. Or they would stay home, just like many non-Trumpers in the GOP are threatening if Trump gets the nomination. It seems everyone has a bridge too far. The point is, they all can’t be relied on to hop over to the Rubio bandwagon.

The same goes for some of Carson’s fans, while Kasich’s fans may prefer Trump to Rubio because he’s more of a true centrist than Rubio is. Even some of Jeb’s supporters will break for Trump, whatever Bush’s wishes may be. Trump himself said on Saturday night about the prospect of a winnowing field, “They don’t understand as people drop out, I’m going to get a lot of those votes also. You don’t just add them together.” That’s correct. The question is simply whether Rubio, who’s reliably 10 points behind Trump even in his “good” polls, can win so many more Bush, Kasich, Carson, and Cruz supporters than Trump to make up that difference. And not only does he have to make up the difference, he has to do it consistently in state after state; it won’t do for Rubio to win a state here while Trump wins one there if Trump has already built a sizable delegate lead. And again, all of this assumes that Cruz will drop out in the next few weeks, which seems exceedingly unlikely given the organization he’s built, the amount of money he still has in the bank, and the awareness that his influence over a brokered convention will be nil unless he hangs in there for a long run.

Since we’ve already gamed out the prospect of Cruz losing his home state, ask yourself this: What happens if Rubio loses his home state of Florida on March 15th? The last three polls taken there, all of them in January before voting anywhere started, had Trump by 12, 32, and 19 points. In all three polls, Trump would still finish ahead of Rubio even if you assigned every one of Jeb Bush’s voters to Rubio. Granted, the dynamics of the race that produced those numbers will be much different by next month, especially if Rubio represents mainstream Republicans’ last stand against Trump, but the dynamics will also have positive elements for Trump by dint of his momentum. Florida seems like a good match for Trump too, with lots of transplanted New Yorkers and an expensive ad market which Trump will bypass via earned media. I don’t think it’s nuts to imagine him beating Rubio there, especially if Cruz is still hanging around — which is likely — and if he does, the race really is 99 percent over. The remaining one percent is simply a concession to the fact that Trump wouldn’t technically have notched a clear majority of all GOP delegates. But he would, inevitably.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on February 02, 2023