Seeing a lot of buzz this morning that Trump underperformed last night and therefore it’s a whole new ballgame in Florida and Ohio. It may indeed be a whole new ballgame — but not the way you think. Because the dirty little secret of last night’s results is that Trump didn’t underperform. Behold:
Compared to our Super Tuesday-based estimates, Trump stayed totally flat, Cruz surged, Rubio collapsed pic.twitter.com/tjNkXhOI3L
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) March 6, 2016
Trump finished very close to where he was projected to finish in all four elections. The reason he “underperformed,” winning just two of the four states up for grabs, is because Ted Cruz overperformed dramatically. And the reason Cruz overperformed is starkly clear in Cohn’s graph, namely, a broad chunk of Rubio’s support collapsed out from under him and shifted to Cruz. According to Alexis Levinson, Rubio banked 20.1 percent of the early vote in Louisiana but just 9.4 percent(!) of the ballots cast yesterday. Check WaPo’s early vote/election day comparison map of Louisiana and you’ll see Rubio’s early strength vanish before your very eyes, replaced by a late surge for Cruz. When the first returns in Louisiana were reported last night, showing Trump up more than 20 points based on early voting, the networks promptly called the state for him and pronounced it another demonstration of his power in the south. And then, for the next two hours, everyone watched as Cruz surged closer and closer — at one point coming within three points, leading data nerds on Twitter to howl that the networks should un-call the race. Trump held on to win — by less than four points, in a state where RCP’s final poll average had him ahead by nearly 16. Rubio, meanwhile, finished at a dismal 11.2 percent. That was symptomatic of a national trend yesterday, with Cruz doing better than expected and Rubio doing worse. Obviously, some significant number of pro-Rubio conservatives decided to vote strategically and support Cruz instead.
We can spend the rest of the day debating why — Cruz won several states on Super Tuesday versus just one for Rubio, Rubio diminished himself with his playground insults of Trump, Cruz excelled at the last debate whereas Rubio, weakened by flu, was flat — but it is what it is. A chunk of the right decided to consolidate behind Cruz as an alternative to Trump. And now that they have, with Cruz surfing a new round of excited buzz from yesterday’s performance, there’s no reason to think a chunk of the right in Florida won’t do the same thing. In any other state, with Florida being a closed primary, that might suggest a surprise win by Cruz over Trump on March 15th. Florida isn’t “any other state,” though. It’s Marco Rubio’s home state, one he’s described as must-win for him. Loyalty to Rubio should run stronger there than it would elsewhere among many of his supporters. Others, though, will find themselves in the same position as my friend John Ekdahl, a resident of Florida:
Almost went to the Rubio rally in Jax today. Assumed voting Rubio on 3/15 would be my last stand, but wondering if I should vote Cruz now.
— John Ekdahl (@JohnEkdahl) March 6, 2016
You can see what sort of dynamic is shaping up here and why Trump stands to benefit most from it. A private poll taken yesterday of Florida had the race Trump 35, Rubio 30, Cruz 16. It seems safe to assume, after last night’s results, that some Rubio voters will conclude that Cruz is the only game in town now if you want to beat Trump. Their votes will shift — but others will stay put due to Rubio’s stronger-than-usual support in his own backyard. And don’t forget: Thanks to early voting, many votes in Florida have already been banked for Rubio (and for Trump, of course). Even if his fans choose to desert him and vote strategically for Cruz, there may be five or six percent already on the books that are committed to Rubio and can’t be changed. What’s shaping up here, in other words, is a dynamic where Cruz wins a bigger share of the vote in Florida than everyone expects but not so much that he manages to consolidate all of Rubio’s support, especially once you factor early voting in, thus producing … a narrow Trump victory, possibly along the lines of Trump 37, Rubio 29, Cruz 25. In a state that awards its delegates proportionally, that would be no big deal. Trump would finish with an extra 10 delegates or whatever. But Florida is winner-take-all; if the vote goes the way I’m imagining, with conservatives stalemated between Cruz and Rubio, Trump gets 99 delegates for his trouble. That alone is eight percent of the total he needs to clinch the nomination. It’d be a disaster for anti-Trumpers.
The upshot of all this is that yesterday’s post gaming out a Trump/Rubio race in Florida already seems dated. Rubio fans were angry on Friday upon hearing that Cruz would compete in Florida given that he had no chance to win and was simply siphoning off anti-Trump votes from Rubio. Twenty-four hours later, those assumptions are in question: Even if Cruz bailed on the state today, the buzz he’s gotten from his big day on Saturday may move enough of Rubio’s votes his way that there’s no way to stop the siphoning whether Cruz wants to or not. I’m also less certain that Cruz has zero chance of beating Trump in Florida — if, that is, Marco Rubio were to drop out and endorse him before the 15th. Rubio suspending his campaign and backing Cruz might (emphasis on “might”) consolidate enough conservatives to give Cruz a narrow win, which would be an enormous boost to his campaign. Again, though: Cruz would be handicapped by the fact that some sizable chunk of early votes have doubtless already been tallied for Rubio, and there’s no way to reallocate those votes to Cruz. We may be in a situation here where it’s next to impossible for either man to win the state now, Rubio because Cruzmentum is draining away the support he needs to overtake Trump and Cruz because loyalty to Rubio is a bit too stubborn in his home state to allow him to overtake Trump. Everything’s comin’ up Trump!
Besides, it doesn’t sound like Rubio’s planning to cede his home field to Cruz. Here he is yesterday declaring that he won’t drop out and emphasizing that “the map only gets friendlier for us after tonight,” which is true but virtually meaningless if he loses Florida since that’s likely to condemn him to also-ran status for the rest of the race. And even if he stormed back somehow in northern and western states to achieve near-parity in delegates with Trump and Cruz, give me a scenario where Rubio somehow emerges as the nominee at a brokered convention. He’s the only guy of the top three I can’t imagine being nominated. Trump will be nominated if he ends up with a near-majority of delegates, say 45 percent or so, which is certainly doable for him. It’d be seen as “unfair” to deny him. Cruz could be nominated if Rubio hangs around and the convention deadlocks; he’d be the compromise choice between conservatives and populists, someone whom Trump fans might not like but would certainly prefer to Rubio. Nominating Rubio, though, would probably cause Trumpists to flee the party en masse, leaving the GOP broken and Rubio badly weakened in the general election. Nominating him would also be perceived by populists in both the Trump and Cruz camps as a middle finger from the establishment, a case of the elites rigging the game for their favored candidate even though he finished third in delegates (as seems likely). It would be civil war. So if Rubio can’t be nominated at the convention and he also can no longer win a majority of delegates before the convention, what’s the point of him continuing his campaign?