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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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