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 RealClearPolitics.com’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.