Donald Trump has won three out of the first four nominating contests of the year, and he won them decisively. The race should be all but over. Objectively, it is not. Not yet, at least.
Trump’s margin of victory in the Nevada Caucus surpassed that of Marco Rubio (second place) and Ted Cruz’s (third) combined vote totals. Trump received more votes in Nevada than every single 2012 candidate combined. The recognition that Trump is indeed the frontrunner and is in the best position to secure his party’s presidential nomination has led to fits of despondency among core conservatives. It has also vindicated pundits whose identity is tied up in the idea that both American elites and the two-party duopoly are corrupt. Those who dare contend that this race defies precedent and therefore may yet hold some surprises are subject to withering scorn, mockery, and social pressure to conform to the emerging conventional wisdom that Trump cannot be stopped. The spectacle of ostensibly knowledgeable and experienced political prognosticators scolding those who dare notice that fewer than 10 percent of delegates have yet been awarded, that proportionality reigns until mid-March, and that Donald Trump is not the inevitable nominee just yet is its own special species of wish-casting. This vanguard of conformity would contend that those who dare take issue with their analyses are blinkered by ephemeral and subjective things like arithmetic. Nonsense.
That said, anyone who would claim that Trump is not the likely nominee at this point is deluding themselves. So long as the present dynamic of split anti-Trump votes remains static, and Trump does not endure a constant and withering barrage of attacks, there will be no way to stop the party’s frontrunner. Everyone knows this. Everyone also knows that the party stands a decent shot of stopping Trump if they were to unite around one candidate – either Senators Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz – and that the only obstacle to this is the cross purposes of those two candidates, both of whom know they’d be the chief beneficiary of GOP consolidation effort. In acknowledgement of this conundrum, the pundit class seems to have pronounced this predicament intractable and permanent and anointed Trump the nominee- apparent. This is conventional wisdom as flawed as that which contended Trump would implode before October.
The reality is that, as of today, Donald Trump needs to win another 1,155 delegates to become the party’s nominee whereas Rubio or Cruz must win another 1,221 and 1222 respectively. Trump is well ahead of his target, and Rubio and Cruz are lagging. In any normal year, the candidate who wins three out of the first four nominating contests accumulates momentum and becomes a runaway train headed toward the nominating convention. This is not a normal year, and Donald Trump is not a normal Republican candidate. The bandwagon effect you would expect to see in a nominee that is as well positioned as he is now, in which his reluctant opposition gives up the ghost and becomes resigned to the frontrunner, is not occurring. In every state, exit polls have demonstrated that Trump has won the smallest number of “late deciding” voters. By contrast, and perhaps by virtue of the cascade of endorsements he has received since coming in a surprise second-place in South Carolina, Senator Marco Rubio has won a broad plurality of late-deciding voters. What’s more, Trump continues to have the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidate in “in modern history,” as the reporter and analyst Lou Cannon observed. It’s rare for a party to commit premeditated suicide by nominating a candidate so out of step with the party’s ideological center of gravity and who is so unlikely to win in November. Those analysts who acknowledge this are not deluding themselves. All of this portends a long contest – certainly one that will retain a bit of mystery heading into mid-March, when the first winner-take-all contests are held.
As our own Peter Wehner accurately observedved, Ted Cruz is facing substantial headwinds in his quest for the nomination. The Republican primary calendar is frontloaded with states that disproportionately favor the party’s conservative candidates. While that’s good news for candidates who appeal to moderates like Trump and Rubio, it’s terrible news for Cruz after coming in a disappointing third place in two states in which he campaigned heavily: Nevada and South Carolina. In his quest to emerge the party’s anti-Trump candidate, Cruz is in real trouble. As a result, Rubio is likely to fare better than expected when 595 delegates are awarded on “Super Tuesday.”
Some handy calculations performed by NBC’s “Meet the Press” analysts demonstrate how the current competitive dynamic of the GOP nominating contest could stick around for a while. Rubio reached a critical threshold in Nevada and South Carolina by passing the 20 percent mark, which is the vote share that many “Super Tuesday” states require a candidate to pull in order to be awarded delegates. As polls now stand in those states that will vote on March 1, presuming Rubio picks up the support of most of Jeb Bush’s voters, Rubio would win 173 delegates to Trump’s 196. Should Rubio inherit the support of most of John Kasich’s voters as well as Bush’s, Rubio would win 208 delegates to Trump’s 196 next week. While Trump retains his lead in the polls and in the delegate count in these scenarios, the mathematical realities of the race make it appear far more competitive than the narrative peddled in the press today would lead observers to believe.
As evidenced by the fact that Trump has not emerged the prohibitive nominee despite his string of victories, the GOP contest’s fluid media narrative deserves to be questioned. It should not, however, be entirely dismissed. COMMENTARY’s John Podhoretz noted that Marco Rubio might be getting some bad advice. If he hopes to emerge the nominee, he will have to take the fight to the frontrunner. The Florida senator’s claim that only the press is “craving” for a fight between Trump and Rubio is deluded. Even Rubio’s allies appear to think engaging Trump directly will only redound to the celebrity candidate’s benefit. “If you wrestle with a pig you get dirty, and the pig likes it,” Representative Sean Duffy told CNN. But Duffy observed smartly that Rubio cannot win without taking on Trump directly. “The anti-Trump party needs someone to voice its case,” Podhoretz asserted. They’re both right. Too clever by half political strategists anxiously thumbing their monthly retainer might convince candidates that they enjoy some marginal benefits from Trump’s dominance in the race, but this is an illusion. Everything about Donald Trump is anathema to the party and the country he seeks to lead. This is a hill upon which the GOP’s responsible nominees must die. If they must fall, they’d be better served to do so fighting.
The despair today from stalwart conservatives is as palpable as the muted elation from supposedly centrist pundits whose careers are bound to the notion that the political class is out of touch and must be destroyed. It is still the case that there is plenty of baseball left to be played. While there are now scores on the board, and the momentum is surely behind one team, it would be downright foolish to declare the game over after the first inning.