Trump makes a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Trump makes a campaign stop in South Carolina. Paul Sancya/AP

The GOP Nod Will Go to Trump or Cruz, Unless the Establishment Sorts Itself Out

Trump has the bigger numbers now, but Cruz is closer to the party’s center of gravity.

With every passing day, the odds in­crease that the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion will come down to a choice between Don­ald Trump and Ted Cruz. Even with Chris Christie’s de­cision to sus­pend his cam­paign, three con­ven­tion­al, es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented can­did­ates—Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Ru­bio—re­main in the race. Which is two too many. The longer it takes for the es­tab­lish­ment side of the party to co­alesce be­hind a single can­did­ate, the tough­er it will be for him to se­cure the nom­in­a­tion.

Each of these three are smart and able men, and each has enough sup­port and strong qual­it­ies to keep run­ning, but none is strong enough yet to pull away from the oth­ers. It is the op­pos­ite of what happened on the con­ser­vat­ive side, which Cruz has dom­in­ated after push­ing aside Mike Hucka­bee, Rand Paul, and Rick San­tor­um. Ben Car­son is still tech­nic­ally run­ning, but he hasn’t been vi­able in months and isn’t draw­ing enough sup­port to cut in­to Cruz or Trump in any mean­ing­ful way.

Ac­cord­ing to Real­Clear­Polit­’s av­er­age of polls ahead of the South Car­o­lina primary, Trump now leads with 37 per­cent, Cruz is 20 points back with 17 per­cent, Ru­bio is third at 14.3 per­cent, fol­lowed by John Kasich and Jeb Bush who are pretty much tied with 10.5 and 10 per­cent, re­spect­ively. Private track­ing polls for vari­ous can­did­ates and su­per PACs show a much closer fight between Trump and Cruz with each in the 20’s and mur­ki­er read­ings for third, fourth, and fifth place.

Na­tion­ally, the RCP av­er­ages put Trump ahead with 29 per­cent, with Cruz and Ru­bio neck-and-neck with 21 and 20.3 per­cent, Car­son with 7 per­cent, and Bush at 4 per­cent. Ob­vi­ously there is no na­tion­al primary, which is what a na­tion­al poll would test, but the fig­ures serve as a point of ref­er­ence, giv­ing a rough idea of how things stand in oth­er places be­fore the cir­cus comes to town.

The reas­on I re­main very con­fid­ent in say­ing that Trump will not be the nom­in­ee is that while he is get­ting 29 per­cent or so of the sup­port of Re­pub­lic­ans na­tion­ally, 100 per­cent know who he is and are fairly fa­mil­i­ar with him. If they aren’t, the odds of them be­ing a primary or caucus voter some­place is al­most nonex­ist­ent. The 71 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans who are not for Don­ald Trump may well agree with him on im­mig­ra­tion or some oth­er is­sue, and they like his blunt man­ner, his de­fi­ance of polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness, or his anti­es­tab­lish­ment, anti-politi­cian, anti-Wash­ing­ton mes­sage. But they are not for him, nor are they likely to move to his column.

Each of the oth­er can­did­ates is less known and defined, and thus has more room for growth. It does not mean that someone for Cruz today is likely to jump sides and move to Bush, Kasich, or Ru­bio, or that a sup­port­er of one of these three is likely to jump to Cruz. While the poll num­bers are a little soft, and while voters don’t ne­ces­sar­ily stay in the lanes that ana­lysts put them in, they usu­ally do.

One use­ful ex­er­cise is to total up the shares of sup­port in each of the three ideo­lo­gic­al lanes. If Cruz is pulling 21 per­cent and Car­son 7.3 per­cent, as the RCP av­er­ages sug­gest, that means that 28.3 per­cent of GOP voters are in the con­ser­vat­ive lane and 29 per­cent in Trump’s lane. The sum of Ru­bio’s 20.3 per­cent, Kasich’s 4.7 per­cent, and Bush’s 4 per­cent is 31 per­cent. That means the three lanes are sep­ar­ated by few­er than 3 points, an amaz­ingly even bal­ance. Even if you move Car­son’s 7 per­cent in­to the Trump column—al­though it’s hard to ima­gine Car­son’s deeply re­li­gious, evan­gel­ic­al sup­port­ers grav­it­at­ing to the of­ten-pro­fane and more-sec­u­lar Trump—that would only get him up to 36.3 per­cent, still a long way from the nom­in­a­tion.

Ob­vi­ously the ul­ti­mate goal is del­eg­ates, not polls. My Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port col­league Dav­id Wasser­man has put to­geth­er an elab­or­ate sys­tem that looks at del­eg­ate al­loc­a­tion and the demo­graph­ics of each state to track how well each can­did­ate is do­ing in pur­suit of the nom­in­a­tion. By Wasser­man’s es­tim­a­tion, after Iowa and New Hamp­shire, Trump is on track to cap­ture 81 per­cent of the del­eg­ates he needs to win the nom­in­a­tion, Cruz is second with 69 per­cent, Ru­bio third with 50 per­cent, Kasich next with 25 per­cent, and Bush fifth with 20 per­cent. Clearly the oth­ers are chas­ing Trump, though an im­port­ant caveat is how well Trump will do when the field is fur­ther win­nowed.

While Bush, Kasich, and Ru­bio re­flect the kind of GOP that has tra­di­tion­ally won Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tions, the party is much more con­ser­vat­ive than it was even sev­en years ago when Pres­id­ent George W. Bush left of­fice, and light years away from the Eis­en­hower, Nix­on, Ford, and Re­agan years.

The cen­ter of grav­ity in the party seems closer to Cruz than to the es­tab­lish­ment. That is why, at least at this point, Cruz seems to have the best single shot at the nom­in­a­tion. As this column sug­ges­ted last week, if Bush, Kasich, or Ru­bio do not emerge alone in the next couple of weeks, lead­ers of the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party may go to the Clev­e­land con­ven­tion with an enorm­ously pain­ful choice between Trump and Cruz, both of whom are ana­thema to them.