This is what anti-Trumpers wanted a week ago, right? Cruz should leave Marco alone and give him every chance to shock the world by winning Florida and swiping those 99 delegates. Every delegate that goes to someone besides Trump increases the odds of a brokered convention, which is the only way to keep Trump from the nomination.
A week later, how are we feeling about that? The price of Rubio winning Florida is Rubio staying in the race, and Rubio staying in the race means a split conservative vote for weeks or months to come. By one estimate, Rubio’s already moved at least 70 delegates from Cruz to Trump by competing in states where he didn’t have enough support to qualify for delegates but did have enough support to deny Cruz the votes he needed to overtake Trump. We’re suddenly in a very strange place where it seems like anti-Trumpers need Trump to win Florida purely in the interest of winnowing the field.
So naturally, in this journey of the damned to Cleveland, Team Cruz is now making a strategic decision to give Rubio one last crack at winning his home state without taking flak on his right.
Keep the Promise, the main cluster of independent groups backing Cruz, is preparing to spend millions of dollars in a quartet of states that vote on March 15: Missouri, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina. It is passing entirely on Florida, Rubio’s home state, where he badly trails national front-runner Donald Trump in polls.
“We’re no longer doing anti-Rubio ads in Florida, because it appears he can lose Florida all by himself,” said Kellyanne Conway, the group’s president. “He doesn’t need our help.”
Only about $1 million has been bought so far. But the groups are planning to buy up to $3 million more of television in North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois, to add to the more than $535,000 on digital advertising spent in those states as well as Washington, D.C. and Ohio, and the $435,000 on radio in North Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio. Republicans in D.C. vote on March 12.
That’s a shrewd, prudent allocation of resources if Rubio does in fact go on to lose. Like Sean Davis said a few days ago, there are many more delegates to be had in those four states combined than there are in Florida. If Trump finishes off Rubio there on his own, the Super PAC expenditure here could help pile up Cruz’s take in the other states, reducing the delegate advantage Trump gained from Florida. But if they’ve miscalculated — if Rubio actually does pull the upset on Tuesday night — then Cruz’s campaign may well be sunk as Rubio decides to soldier on, effectively handing the winner-take-all primaries to come to Trump as conservatives divide between Cruz and Rubio. And the possibility of an upset isn’t that far-fetched: A new poll from Mason-Dixon shows Trump leading Rubio by a mere six points, 36/30.
Rubio’s strong support from Hispanic voters (62%) is primarily concentrated in Southeast Florida. Among white voters, who make up the large majority of the GOP electorate, Trump leads Rubio 40%-24%.
Trump appears to have weaker support from female Republicans, as he trails Rubio 37%-29%. But among men, Trump has a wide 42%-24% advantage over Rubio. Breaking down the results by age groups, 18-34- year-olds lean to Trump at 46% with Rubio at 36%. But voters 65+ favor Rubio 39%, with 32% for Trump.
Six points is the smallest lead Trump has had in Florida since November. Two other polls taken this week show him leading by 19, which I assume is in line with what Keep the Promise’s internal polling is showing. If this really does look like a blowout then pulling out of Florida is an easy call. Various other polls of the state recently, however, have showed a close race a la Mason-Dixon. And Mason-Dixon’s new one is encouraging for Rubio in another way:
NOTE Mason-Dixon confirms RUBIO holds early vote lead:
Already voted: Rubio 41 Trump 32
Yet to vote: Trump 37 Rubio 27
— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) March 11, 2016
That’s the second poll this week to show Rubio ahead in early voting. Monmouth’s survey of Florida a few days ago had him up 25 points(!) among that group. If that’s true then Rubio could actually lose election-day voters next week (narrowly) to Trump and still pull off the upset. There are some things working in his favor too: He had a strong, substantive (if subdued) debate last night and he’s been publicly contrite this week for having gotten nasty with Trump a few weeks ago. (Some of the quotes in this WaPo piece from supporters deriding him for that strategic turn are harsh.) If he loses Tuesday night, he’ll be out of politics, possibly forever. And he’s taken on the underdog mantle in his rallies, vowing to fight on and win his state despite nearly everyone nudging him to quit and back Cruz. I think Trump wins Florida next week, but I wouldn’t underestimate the chance of a surprise sympathy vote for Rubio. And if he pulls it off, this raging dumpster fire of a primary is going to explode.
Unless, that is, Rubio wins Florida and then, er, promptly drops out, clearing the way for Cruz. Obviously that’s the best outcome for pure anti-Trumpers — Trump gets stiffed in Florida and Cruz is set up for a head-to-head fight — but I don’t think it’s happening. The best you can hope for is that conservative voters will think like Erick Erickson and simply decide to abandon Rubio en masse after Florida, pushing his vote totals in forthcoming states down so low that he’s largely irrelevant to the delegate gap between Trump and Cruz. But even if that happens … what happens if/when Kasich wins Ohio and then he decides to stick around for several more weeks, eating up part of Cruz’s anti-Trump support? Are we now in a position where #NeverTrumpers need to root for Trump in Florida and Ohio simply for the sake of winnowing? Good lord.