Well, the first in the South primary, South Carolina, is upon us, and public polling has added a bit of uncertainty to the race. While most polls had been showing Donald Trump with a commanding 15+% lead, others since the debate show a less than 5% lead (perhaps his George W. Bush attack did have ramifications). Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz appear to be battling for 2nd and 3rd, though some polls have also shown Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich with a potential shot at 3rd while Dr. Ben Carson has been languishing. Below are my predictions as well as what each candidate needs to achieve to consider the night a success.
Donald Trump: Trump is the national frontrunner and every candidate would trade places with him. Given all the polls showing him up 10+%, a loss in SC would be a major surprise and setback but not enough to totally derail his candidacy as he would still likely place well with numerous victories across the South on March 1. A win in SC would really solidify his standing and give him momentum to nearly run the table March 1 (it is hard to see him win TX at this point). My guess is the polls showing him up 15% are overstating things and he likely wins by about 10%. At that point, it very much becomes Trump’s race to lose with a chance to take a commanding delegate lead and a head of steam after the SEC Primary, though if the field narrows to 2 after the 15th all bets are off. I would expect Trump to win tomorrow with the operative question “by how much.” I guess 9%.
Marco Rubio: Rubio has seemingly rebounded from his NH debacle thanks to a strong ground game, solid debate performance, and key endorsements from Rep. Trey Gowdy, Sen. Tim Scott, and Gov. Nikki Haley. With that popular trio, Rubio should be finishing very strongly in SC, even if NH derailed the “3-2-1” strategy (now it’s the less catchy “3-5-2/3”). The Rubio/Cruz battle for 2nd/3rd is very close, but Rubio appears to be the candidate with the momentum. These endorsements have given Rubio the shot he has at 2nd but raise the bar for success. 2nd place leaves Rubio in a very good position to consolidate the “establishment” and “center-right” lanes, become the clear anti-Trump choice, and win a few states (perhaps NV?) before picking up Florida’s 99 delegates the 15th. A solid 3rd gives Rubio some momentum and still leaves him the clear choice in anti-Trump circles. The problem for Rubio would arise if he came in a weak 3rd (say 15%). If that’s all he can muster with the institutional support he has in SC, it will raise reasonable concerns about where Rubio can win. A weak showing could let Bush continue, siphoning off votes on March 1, while leaving the anti-Trump part of the party fractured. In the worst case, Rubio, without any SC momentum, goes winless on the 1st and 8th, leaving him vulnerable to losing to Trump in FL, ending his bid. My base case is 2nd for Rubio, but he has to perform tomorrow, if he drifts much below 17%, yellow lights will be flashing. 15% is my benchmark for failure, which is not my expectation.
Ted Cruz: Cruz like Rubio needs a strong showing, and while I see him in a close third, his fantastic ground game could still get him in 2nd. The fact is Cruz needs to crush it on March 1 because the map gets very unfavorable after that. He should win big in TX, which could net him 100-120 delegates, but he needs some wins elsewhere in the South to wrest the anti-establishment crown from Trump as places like MI, OH, MO, FL, WI are unlikely to be as favorable as AL, TN, OK, and GA. If Cruz can’t win in the South, it is unclear where he could thereafter. A bunch of second place finishes to Trump would give him plenty of delegates and a chance in a brokered convention but would leave him with a challenged path to winning outright. Cruz needs to walk out of SC with some momentum so that he can challenge Trump on March 1. A win certainly would do that but seems unlikely. 2nd also leaves him with a decent shot, though he will need a good week campaigning and solid debate performance to hold Trump back. A 3rd place finish leaves Cruz in a weakened position, and something closer to 15% than 20% would be very problematic (though that seems unlikely). For Cruz to have a credible shot at the nomination, he likely needs to be the delegate leader after March 1. A weak SC showing makes that tough to envision.
Jeb Bush: Bush needs a top three finish to justify continuing his campaign. Besides running low on cash at the campaign level, he may not have much of a choice about how much longer he continues. After making SC a make or break state and bringing in his brother to campaign for him, a loss to Rubio would be very disappointing and lead to even more of a donor exodus. If he can beat Rubio, Bush will be able to stick around, though it is unclear when Bush would actually be able to win a primary. Anyway at this point, 5th place is likelier than 3rd. With money drying up and no momentum, Bush’s campaign will probably be done after SC, though he may take a shot at NV hoping to hit the proverbial jackpot. If he sticks around despite a poor finish, it will be nothing but a vanity effort with Bush too hobbled to have any credible chance at the nomination.
John Kasich: Kasich probably has the lowest bar of any candidate tomorrow as South Carolina has never seemed like a perfect fit, especially given the time and money Rubio and Bush have devoted to the state (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). I would look for Kasich to finish 5th, and it would be helpful for him to get to double digits to keep some of his NH momentum. Surpassing Bush, an outside possibility, would also help him in the expectations game. Kasich retains a narrow path to the nomination that doesn’t change much based on SC: use March 15 (a huge win in OH, strong showings/wins in MO and IL) to consolidate anti-Trump and start a big winning streak. That likely requires winning or a strong 2nd in Michigan on the 8th. To do that, I would argue he must show some viability on March 1, probably by winning or coming in 2nd in VT, MA, and maybe VA. It is a narrow path, and SC won’t derail it, but a finish above Jeb would be beneficial. One thing to watch for is a possible Governor Christie endorsement before March 1, which could bring other Governors (like MA’s Charlie Baker) on board and help Kasich score a better than expected showing on the 1st.
Ben Carson: There just is no plausible path for Carson to be the Republican nominee, and I would expect a 6th place finish, though thanks to committed supporters, there is an outside chance he sneaks into 5th. Ben Carson really seems to be this cycle’s Fred Thompson. In 2008, Thompson, who had no shot, stayed in through SC to pull votes from Huckabee and help his friend, John McCain win the state. It feels like Carson is sticking around to take votes away from Cruz, whose campaign spread a rumor he was dropping out in Iowa. By pulling over 5%, Carson does make Cruz’s life tougher, thereby helping Trump. Carson may stick around through March 1st, but if he does, it will only serve to hurt Cruz.
Ultimately, Cruz and Rubio are in somewhat precarious positions. Both need to exit SC with momentum to gain ownership of their lane. Strong showings put them in good positions to take on Trump, but weak showings could cripple them. I’m going to guess Rubio bests Cruz but both achieve what they need to. For Trump, a win solidifies his status as frontrunner, particularly if he can make it double-digits, but even a shocking loss leaves him with a path. Jeb is all but done, but Rubio needs to put him away. Carson is merely playing spoiler. Perhaps more than a strong performance of his own, Kasich is rooting for a bit softer Rubio performance to delay the consolidation of the establishment lane, making his narrow path a bit more plausible.
Of course, if these predictions are proven wrong in 24 hours, I will deny having given them. That does seem to work for our frontrunner after all…
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