South Carolina Primary Takeaways

On Saturday, South Carolina delivered Donald Trump a massive victory, in-line with my expectations outlined here (and in the tweet below). Trump claimed about one-third of the vote, enough for a roughly 10% win and a seeming sweep of the 50 delegates. Jeb Bush was relegated to single-digits, and he did the right thing, suspending his campaign. There are now five men standing, though only four have any shot left (Carson is merely spoiler at this point). Below are some takeaways after South Carolina as well as updated odds.

odds

 

  1. Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner

This was a big win for Trump, outperforming some recent polls, showing his lead down to 5%. This win was crucial for him to retain and build on his NH momentum. No one has won NH and SC and failed to be the Republican nominee, though there can always be a first time. Trump’s odds are now over 50% in my opinion as you can see from the above chart. His gains come mainly at the expense of Cruz because if Cruz can’t beat him here, where in the South does Cruz beat Trump March 1? Trump is poised to romp across the South and be the clear delegate leader. After a huge March 1 showing, he would even have a solid chance at winning Florida the 15th, knocking Rubio out. Trump is in an enviable position.

I also don’t buy that Trump is doomed when the field narrows further as he will pick up some voters of dropped out candidates and starts with the highest base of support. With each Trump win, anti-Trump resistance will also soften. Remember, McCain and Romney each got less than 35% in SC and were able to consolidate down the line. Yes, Trump’s ceiling is probably lower than past nominees, but it may well be over 50%. Not every vote cast for someone else is an “anti-Trump” vote, some are pro-Rubio, pro-Cruz etc. and can be swayed. Every candidate would swap places with Trump. That’s a fact.

  1. Ted Cruz is in real trouble

With 70% of voters evangelical and a very conservative electorate, SC should’ve been fertile for Cruz, instead he got 3rd. If Cruz can’t beat Trump here, where can he on March 1 (apart from TX)? Cruz will rack up a lot of delegates that day, but he needs to win states as the map gets worse for him thereafter. After SC, Cruz is still viable with a strong cash position and likely the second most delegates after March 1, but to have an obvious path, he probably needs to be the delegate leader after March 1 as Rubio will stick around until Florida and later states are less conservative.

In hindsight, choosing to campaign in NH was probably a mistake as that 3rd place finish did nothing for him. Conversely a strong 2nd or 1st in SC would have left Cruz with more momentum heading down South. He should’ve hunkered down in SC for the extra week. Cruz needs a killer debate this week to regain the momentum vs. Trump. Otherwise, he is a bad position. He can collect a lot of delegates and be a player in a contested convention, but barring a big shift this week, getting a majority of delegates seems pretty challenging. In hindsight, I have been overstating Cruz’s chances the past month at Trump’s expense and fixed the mistake. I’d peg Cruz’s odds at this point at 1 in 10, but he needs to find a spark this week.

  1. Marco Rubio is in a good, but tenuous, position

By knocking Jeb out, Rubio is in very good position to consolidate much of the establishment lane and have anti-Trump factions coalesce around him. 2nd place is quite good, but Rubio did have Haley, Scott, and Gowdy on his team. If he can’t win a state with so much support from the power structure, where does he win? Again, given how some ridiculously wrote Rubio off after NH, SC was a strong showing, but he must win at some point. The South will be tough on March 1, and Rubio’s best shot may be Virginia or possibly Minnesota. Rubio is the candidate who is arguably acceptable to the broadest swath of voters, which is why I see him as the likeliest non-Trump nominee. By virtue of knocking Jeb out, this was a good night. He also should pick up many Jeb donors, which is important as his campaign is down to $5 million cash on hand as of 1/31.

That is why he is in a good position, but it is tenuous because he needs to win somewhere. To be the nominee, you can’t just rack up 2nd and 3rd. Florida is total firewall on the 15th, and with it comes 99 delegates. Rubio can lurk behind Trump, pick up FL, make a big move up in delegates, and have the momentum to beat him. However, if Rubio loses FL, he is done for. If Rubio can’t win a state before the 15th, there is a serious risk Trump beats him in FL. This is why Rubio is still in a tenuous place. Maybe he wins NV (polling is impossible here), but he needs to find someplace on March 1 to make that stand and hold momentum into FL. Rubio is the establishment’s best shot after the first 3 primaries, but now he needs to win.

  1. John Kasich retains a narrow path

South Carolina didn’t matter to Kasich, and his narrow path remains: surprise in MA, VT, and maybe VA on the 1st, use that to win or take a close 2nd in MI the 8th, and use that to win OH big the 15th alongside strong showings in IL and MO. (Full disclosure: I have donated to Kasich) Everything must go right for this to happen, and if not, he risks playing spoiler for Rubio, which is why some establishment types will call for his exit. However, Kasich is much less likely to lose OH than Rubio is FL, given his sky-high approval ratings and the entire state party working feverishly for him there. In a sense, Kasich is arguably a Rubio insurance policy. If Rubio can’t beat Trump in FL, the establishment needs someone who can, and with an OH win that day, Kasich would be the only guy left. Kasich has a narrow path but a path; I’d peg the odds around 4%. One thing to watch for is whether governors rally around the last governor left. In particular, a Christie endorsement seems quite possible, and with his RGA connections, others might follow. If Christie bring MA’s Baker on board, that would help Kasich surprise on the 1st.

Where to next?

We have NV on Tuesday, which is very hard to predict (my guess is Trump but Rubio could surprise). Eyes will really be focused on the SEC Primary. Right now, it seems like Trump is going to roll. Cruz needs to find some way to regain momentum. Rubio has to find a state or two to win, and Kasich needs to build a Northeast firewall before Michigan. It will also be interesting to see what a debate is like without Jeb (aka the Trump punching-bag). Fun times, indeed!

In brief after South Carolina, I’d rather be Trump than anyone else. He is the clear frontrunner. Rubio is best positioned to rally together anti-Trump factions, but he better do so soon.

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South Carolina Primary Predictions and Thoughts

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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