Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Hour Is Growing Late to Stop Trump

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley February 20th, 2016

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If you had told us when Donald Trump entered the race that he would take second place in Iowa, win New Hampshire easily, and then triumph in South Carolina, you’d have needed smelling salts to revive us. But he’s done it, and no one else has really been able to shake the intense hold he has on about a third of the Republican Party.

The old question becomes THE question: Can Trump expand his ceiling to 40% and above, as the number of opponents dwindles?

Even if he can’t, can he continue to rack up wins while the Keystone Kops (otherwise known as the GOP establishment) try to get their house in order?

The three finalists before South Carolina were Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. The three finalists after South Carolina are Trump, Rubio, and Cruz.

Jeb Bush’s candidacy died long ago, even if it took another poor performance to convince the candidate of that. Three Bushes were one too many — and we’ve said that from the day he announced. He was the epitome of the establishment in an anti-establishment year, and his candidate skills proved underwhelming.

Ben Carson may persist, and some Republicans think that’s OK because most of his voters might otherwise migrate to Cruz, who is perhaps even more unacceptable to the party’s establishment power centers than Trump. Maybe Carson will stay in just to spite Cruz over lingering bad blood from Cruz’s Iowa antics: The Cruz campaign suggested Carson was dropping out of the race when he wasn’t.

John Kasich may be able to compete in places such as Massachusetts and Michigan in early March, and hang on to win Ohio with the hope that his delegates prove crucial. But he just isn’t built to play in enough states, nor does he have a broad enough appeal in the GOP, to truly challenge for the nomination.

Most mainstream Republicans will sooner or later move to Rubio, but will it be soon enough? He can’t keep on finishing second or third — or fifth, as he did in New Hampshire. You have to start winning, but where?

Trends from Iowa and New Hampshire manifested themselves once again in South Carolina. Trump did better among voters with lower education levels, while Rubio did better among the more educated. Cruz did well with the most conservative voters, but he doesn’t show much appeal outside of the hard-liners. To have a shot, Cruz must do well in the most religious and conservative states. Unquestionably, South Carolina is one of them, yet Cruz didn’t get a single delegate. Cruz is well-funded and has some theoretically promising states coming up on Super Tuesday — like his home state of Texas — but his hopes of winning the nomination seem to be dwindling, at least at the moment.

Now that Bush is out, Rubio might want to consider a daring gambit — openly offering Kasich the vice presidential slot in exchange for the Ohio governor’s support. (Ronald Reagan did something similar much later in his 1976 campaign, right before the Republican convention, and while it didn’t work out, Reagan shook up conventional wisdom. It is a tactic worth considering.) If Rubio can somehow push Kasich out after Bush’s exit, it seems reasonable to think that the lion’s share of their supporters would go to him, and in a three-way race, that could be enough for Rubio to start getting the victories he has failed to secure so far. However, Kasich seems inclined to continue to run, and the Republican power brokers who favor a Rubio-Kasich ticket probably won’t take the risks necessary to make this happen.

Let’s make no mistake: Trump, amazingly, is in a commanding position to become the Republican presidential nominee. The fact that he won about the same share of the vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina — two wildly different states —  shows the broad appeal of his campaign among a significant portion of the Republican electorate. As we noted in the Crystal Ball on Thursday, we’re rapidly approaching a critical point in the Republican primary process: After Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio vote on March 15, nearly 60% of the Republican delegates will have been won. If someone is going to beat Trump, Rubio probably has the best shot, but the hour is growing late for all of the non-Trump candidates.