Daniel Larison

The Woes of the GOP “Establishment”

Steve Beshear/Flickr

Matt Purple looks ahead to the rest of the February contests and concludes that Trump is still the favorite to win:

Trump leads in New Hampshire, the moderate state. He leads in South Carolina, the establishment state. He leads in Nevada, the libertarian state. His margins in those places are not narrow.

If someone told you that the national front-runner lost narrowly in Iowa, but had commanding leads in almost every state that votes over the next six weeks, you would assume that this was the candidate in the strongest position to win the nomination. That remains true this year, and the fact that the candidate is Trump doesn’t change that. As Sam Stein pointed out in his analysis of last night’s results, the “establishment” suffered a resounding repudiation:

Collectively, [Carson’s], Cruz’s and Trump’s totals suggest that a huge swath of Republican primary voters are committed to supporting either a Washington outsider or the most hated man who currently works there.

If you add in Paul’s 4.5%, over 65% of voters last night chose an “outsider” candidate or one that party leaders cannot stand. Rubio’s 23% was higher than expected, but as a measure of support for a candidate favored by party leaders it is the weakest showing for the top “establishment” candidate in Iowa in decades. In New Hampshire, support for the “outsiders” and insurgents still accounts for half of the electorate. In South Carolina, that figure shoots back up to 66%. These are not electorates that are going to be satisfied with what the “establishment” candidates have to offer. Even if Trump loses some ground in the coming weeks, “establishment” candidates aren’t likely to be the ones that benefit. Since a large part of Trump’s support comes from moderate Republicans, it probably doesn’t hurt him that much that he didn’t prevail in a heavily evangelical caucus state.

The “establishment” vote seems likely to remain divided for a while because Kasich and Bush are very likely hanging on until they get to the Ohio and Florida primaries in mid-March. Assuming that they will be pressured or will feel obligated to step aside credits party leaders with cunning and coordination that they have completely failed to show for the last year. It will be even harder to persuade Kasich to drop out if he finishes ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, and that is likely still what happens next week. Even if that vote doesn’t remain divided, there isn’t enough of it across most of the South to make much of a difference. As Diehl pointed out in the article I referred to yesterday, the total “establishment” vote in the “SEC primary” states is swamped by support for the insurgent and “outsider” candidates. Here he uses Georgia as an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

Supposing that the “establishment” vote finally does unite behind a candidate by mid-March, Diehl points out that it will probably be too late:

On March 15, the primary schedule shifts to more moderate states that are friendlier to the insiders. But by then, almost half of the national convention delegates, and more than 90 percent of the delegates required to nominate, will have already been chosen.

The time for consolidating the “establishment” vote was weeks or months ago, not weeks or months from now. If it happens, it probably won’t stop Trump and Cruz from dominating Super Tuesday, and by then the “establishment” will have run out of time.

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The U.S. Should Halt Its Support for the War on Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Emma Ashford once again urges the Obama administration to halt its support for the war on Yemen:

In his last few months in office, President Obama should take advantage of his executive power to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and direct America’s diplomats to aggressively pursue a diplomatic settlement. This war is humanitarian disaster and a strategic failure; ending our support for it should be a no-brainer.

Ashford is absolutely right. I couldn’t agree more that Obama should withdraw the support he’s provided to the Saudis and their allies. The intervention has had predictably disastrous results, and there is growing evidence that the Saudis and their allies are likely guilty of committing crimes against humanity in Yemen. The U.S. should have never had any part in this conflict, and it should stop its involvement immediately. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the administration is interested in doing this.

As Ashford pointed out at our conference last fall, U.S. support for the war on Yemen is one of Washington’s latest misguided attempts to “reassure” the Gulf clients that the U.S. is on their side. U.S. officials keep recommitting the U.S. to this path with their effusive praise of the clients that are inflicting death and devastation on their poorer neighbor. When Secretary Kerry boasts just last month that “we have made it clear that we stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia,” that doesn’t leave any ambiguity about what the U.S. position on this war will continue to be.

Sen. Murphy described this position a bit more in his important speech last week:

But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, there are many in Congress who would have the United States double down in our support for the Saudi side of this fight in places like Yemen and Syria, simply because Saudi Arabia is our named friend, and Iran is our named enemy.

But as Murphy goes on to say, it is a serious mistake to “blindly back” the Saudis, especially when it means supporting their most destructive behavior. The problem is that Murphy is virtually alone in Congress in his willingness to say so publicly. Halting support for the Saudi-led war is a “no-brainer.” Regrettably, most members of Congress would rather have the U.S. back a failed intervention that is displacing millions and causing near-famine conditions for millions more than risk offending the Saudis and the other Gulf states fighting there. Because of a foolish desire to placate despotic clients, the U.S. has put itself in the absurd position of catering to their whims and subordinating our interests to theirs. That needs to stop, but I fear Obama has no intention of stopping it.

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The Limits of Rubiomania

Gage Skidmore / cc

Michael Brendan Dougherty identifies the main source of enthusiasm for Rubio among Republican elites and pundits:

The other reason that Rubio-mania will take off is less inspiring. Rallying around Rubio will just be too strong a temptation for the GOP’s elite and the most established organs of the conservative movement. Rubio’s candidacy is essentially based on the premise that nothing from the George W. Bush era has to change for the Republican Party.

That’s in line with what I said last month. Rubio’s candidacy represents the conceit that there is nothing so wrong with the GOP or its agenda that can’t be fixed with more wars and more immigration (and more Republican support of both). As I put it then:

If Rubio could win, it would mean that the discredited Bush-era agenda was still viable (among Republicans at least), and it would mean that the people that created and supported that agenda were still in full control of the party. The old rules that say that the party elites’ favored candidate gets the nomination would still be in force. For all the talk that Rubio is a “generational” candidate who would lead the GOP into the future, a large part of Rubio’s appeal to his (relatively few) supporters is that he promises to take the U.S. back to the Bush years: U.S. “leadership” and activism abroad and vaguely “compassionate” conservative activism at home.

However, the upheaval in the Republican primaries this year shows that most Republicans are absolutely not satisfied with keeping the party as it is. Rubio has obviously been the candidate that party leaders prefer to Trump and Cruz, and most Republicans have been very clear over the last year that they want nothing to do with the things their leaders prefer. The more that party leaders try to foist Rubio on a party that is sick of their leadership, the more he will be rejected. The fact remains that the people that haven’t been experiencing Rubiomania are most Republican voters, and most of them aren’t going to because he offers them nothing except a rehash of policies that they know have already failed them.

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Iowa Results

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Despite dropping in late polls, Cruz used his superior campaign organization to storm back and take the Iowa caucuses by a decent margin. If a Cruz win seems somewhat anticlimactic at this point, that’s only because he had been doing very well in the state for several weeks until his slump in late January. Trump’s equally unimpressive ground game left him with the second-place finish that he was poised to have a couple weeks ago, and that happened in spite of a huge increase in turnout that was supposed to help him. I don’t think a second-place finish for Trump significantly blunts his advantages elsewhere, and his leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina seem large enough that he is still well-positioned to win in both places. Cruz’s win in Iowa gives the Texan a boost heading into New Hampshire next week, and that means he is likely to shore up his position in third place there. The main story is that two candidates absolutely loathed by party leaders captured more than half the vote in Iowa, and they are on track to win at least two-fifths of the vote in New Hampshire. Cruz’s victory sets up the Trump-Cruz race that Republican elites don’t want, which is why there will inevitably be excessive attention paid to the second runner-up in the coming days.

As it turns out, there really was some movement towards Rubio in the closing days before the caucuses that the Des Moines Register poll evidently missed for some reason. Accustomed to the absurd pro-Rubio spin we have been hearing for the last six months, I discounted the possibility as soon as people started talking about it. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Rubio still finished in third place despite that surge. While he outperformed his numbers in the poll average by quite a bit, but he has not fixed the core problem of his campaign: he is still unlikely to win anywhere in the next six weeks. Now that Cruz’s fortunes have revived with a win, that is in some ways the worse outcome for Rubio tonight than if Trump had finished in first. That almost certainly means that Rubio will still be trailing both Kasich and Cruz in next week’s primary. None of the other “establishment” candidates appeared to be in any hurry to quit after tonight, and the field seems unlikely to shrink much before New Hampshire. For all the hubbub about Rubio’s expected third-place finish, it hasn’t helped him that much with the problems he had elsewhere.

I obviously missed my main prediction by calling the race for Trump, who fell well short of the result I thought he would get. I missed Rubio’s final percentage by a wide margin because I discounted the possibility of a late surge. My guess for Cruz’s percentage was pretty close at 28%, but I erred in thinking that wouldn’t be enough to win. On the Democratic side, I gave it to Clinton by a point, but as of 10:15 p.m. Central the race was still extremely close: 50.1% to 49.3% with 91% reporting. Even if he doesn’t catch her in the end, Sanders almost tied Clinton and given her a huge scare in Iowa. He will have come so close that he definitely can’t be counted out yet. Following an even worse-than-expected result, O’Malley announced he was suspending his campaign.

In contrast to 2012, there’s no question about who won last night. Unlike Romney’s “win,” it isn’t going to be overturned. That clearly makes Cruz the most competitive non-Trump candidate, but we can be sure that lots of donors and pundits will ignore that and continue to chase the Rubio will o’ the wisp for many more weeks.

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Should Realists Support Trump?

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Dan Drezner picks up on some recent reports of Trump’s supposed foreign policy realism and does not engage in any trolling whatsoever:

If realists really want to have some skin in the American foreign policy game, they will not find a better vessel than Trump.

I don’t consider myself a realist (though I’m often described that way), but I can think of many reasons why realists wouldn’t want to get behind Trump. Judging his candidacy solely on foreign policy grounds, it’s not hard to see why realists would be skeptical of or even horrified by a candidate who denounces the nuclear deal with Iran, lies about its provisions, declares Iran an “existential threat” to Israel, spouts nonsense about Near Eastern regional conflicts, doesn’t seem to know very much about most foreign policy issues, and routinely talks about seizing oil fields as if this were a practical or desirable thing to do. Should realists get on board with a candidate like that because he says some of the right things about the national interest or democracy promotion in the vaguest way possible? I’ll let you be the judge.

Drezner mentions some of the people that Trump has consulted, and a couple of those names should be alarming to lots of people and not just realists:

Rogin reports that Trump has talked to a few foreign policy people (Harvard historian Daniel Pipes, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Dayon [bold mine-DL], former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn).

Pipes was considered a neoconservative until not that long ago (and back in 2005 he said he “happily” accepted the label), and his record is full of horrible foreign policy arguments. Here he was shilling for the MEK, here he was arguing for attacking Iran in 2013, and here he is making an uncharacteristic case for aligning the U.S. with the Assad regime. In short, Pipes routinely offers bad and truly dangerous advice on a range of issues. He also regularly exaggerates the threat from jihadist groups.

Danny Danon is a vocally pro-settler member of Likud, and ran against Netanyahu for the party leadership in part because he thought that Netanyahu wasn’t “tough” enough on the Palestinians and others. He flatly rejects a two-state solution, opposes peace talks, and openly calls for annexing most of the West Bank.

Some of the only people that have been identified as advising Trump on foreign policy are dangerous and frequently wrong about major issues in the Near East. That is the sort of advice that the Trump campaign seems to value. Now why exactly would realists want to be part of that?

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Rejecting the Elite Consensus

Gage Skidmore / Phil Roeder

Noah Millman makes some excellent points in response to Ross Douthat’s latest column:

Both Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, are saying: you know, America’s leadership class has been very busy, but it hasn’t really been taking care of business. And they are telling the people to rebuke their leadership for that by throwing them out. They may be the wrong tribunes of that sentiment – Trump certainly is. But how is that impulse not exactly the right response to elite decadence?

Put bluntly: if the American people are sick of precisely the sorts of “do something” actions that Douthat highlights as signs of decadence, who, in this primary, are they supposed to vote for?

I think that’s right, and I’d say that the truly strange thing is that this reaction hasn’t come much sooner. Douthat starts his column by asking why this is happening now as opposed to a few years ago in the immediate aftermath of the crash and the recession. The failed leadership and the public’s frustrations with their failures were there all along. My guess is that it is happening now because this is the first truly open contest for the nomination in both parties since the 2008 crash, and because the overwhelming elite response to the financial crisis and recession has been to go back to business as usual. Many Republicans can see that their party leaders are committed to continuing or reviving policies that have done nothing for them, and many Democrats can see that their party is in thrall to a candidate closely tied to the financial and political classes that they distrust and loathe. This isn’t so much a reaction against “decadence” as it is a pointed rejection of the elite consensus on many major issues and of the kinds of leaders that maintain it. They’re not protesting over the fact that our society isn’t “advancing” as it once did. They’re objecting to being led in the same direction that they’ve been badly led for decades. As vague or unworkable as their proposals may be, Trump and Sanders are offering voters a chance to go in another direction, and a lot of them are eager to take it.

Republican elites are always trying to sell their party on getting the U.S. involved in foreign conflicts, so it is no surprise that the top two candidates at the moment are some of the only ones explicitly arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t take sides in Syria’s civil war. Republicans may be ready to support fighting wars that they perceive to have something to do with national security, but they have no appetite for sending Americans to police foreign wars for the sake of global “leadership.” It appears they are going to vote accordingly. There is bipartisan support for any and every trade agreement that comes along, and skepticism of those agreements is always dismissed and/or vilified, so it was only a matter of time before candidates espousing that same skepticism would reflect popular frustration on this issue. The most obvious disconnect on the Republican side is on immigration, where Republican elites are strongly in favor of pushing for a liberalization of immigration policy that the vast majority of the party’s supporters doesn’t want. Twice in the last decade party leaders have trying pushing through an immigration bill that their voters hated, and twice they have been stopped. Then those same leaders wonder why most Republicans are getting behind candidates arguing for a radically different position on immigration from theirs.

Just as some other major parties in the Western world have neglected and ignored their constituents’ interests and views for decades on the assumption that they had “nowhere to go” (see Labour in the U.K. for a prime example), our major parties have done to same to millions of their voters. The leaders of the major parties now face a reckoning for their neglect of and poorly-hidden contempt for their voters.

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The RNC Shoots Itself in the Foot (Again)

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Philip Diehl explains how the RNC’s own rule changes are coming back to haunt them in this election:

The last thing the Republican National Committee wanted was a drawn-out battle for the nomination. That’s why the RNC attempted to design the 2016 primary rules to favor an establishment candidate. Of course, the 2016 presidential race has been anything but favorable to establishment candidates: The dynamics of the race point squarely to an anti-establishment candidate securing the nomination. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz now have a near-insurmountable advantage in the race, one that will almost certainly leave the establishment candidates finished by early March.

The RNC has a great talent for fighting the last war. Each cycle they do their best to remedy whatever they perceived to be a major flaw with the last primary season, and they end up with an outcome they hate even more than the last one. In 2008, McCain won quickly against a divided field. He had the nomination effectively sewn up by Super Tuesday (February 5 that year), and Romney’s withdrawal from the race later that same week guaranteed that McCain would win. Because McCain was a nominee many Republicans didn’t want, the RNC set out to prevent the same quick success of a front-running candidate. To that end, they spread out the primaries and fought against “front-loading” the calendar in 2012, and they moved away from winner-take-all rules in some places. That gave them a drawn-out fight between Romney and his rivals that they concluded lasted far too long. Because they assumed that this hurt the eventual nominee and damaged the party with the endless series of primary debates, they went back to a system that was supposed to give a front-runner a better chance to wrap things up sooner. Unfortunately for them, this year party leaders loathe the top two candidates to differing degrees and would prefer that neither of them wins, but the RNC arranged things so that it will be very difficult for any of the other candidates to stop them both.

Some states have what Diehl calls “winner-takes-most” rules that set up a threshold for winning delegates. If a candidate reaches 15 or 20%, he gets his share, but if he falls short of that he gets nothing. The trouble for the “establishment” candidates is that none of them is consistently polling well enough to meet the threshold in most places. Diehl gives an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

The Georgia scenario will play out in six states holding primaries on March 1, otherwise known as the SEC Primary.

Of course, things could change between now and March 1, but the point is that Rubio or any other “establishment” candidate can’t afford to hang around for months finishing in third place again and again in the hopes of winning at some later date. If the GOP had a purely proportional system for awarding delegates that might not be such a terrible plan, but it doesn’t. As Diehl points out the Southern states that vote on March 1 account for 422 delegates apportioned by the same rules, and he observes that they “are conservative states in which establishment candidates will likely struggle to meet the thresholds. The Republican nomination contest is rigged to favor the strongest candidates, and until something changes dramatically that means the system is rigged to favor Trump and Cruz.

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Judging Cuba Normalization by an Unfair Standard

Flickr Commons

The Washington Post absurdly declares that normalization with Cuba is “failing” because it hasn’t yet dramatically changed the country’s political system:

Yet there is scant evidence so far of a sea change in Cuba — perhaps because Mr. Obama continues to offer the Castro regime unilateral concessions requiring nothing in return.

It makes no sense to judge normalization with Cuba this way. Even if it were appropriate, it is far too soon to pass judgment on the effects of a policy that has been in place for less than a year. Opponents of normalization have been content to defend a policy of isolation that achieved nothing for the last five decades, but they are not prepared to wait even five years to see what comes from having normal relations with Cuba. The Post‘s editors also fail to grasp that the purpose of U.S. relations with another government is not to facilitate political change in the other country, but to secure the interests of our country and to promote cooperation in securing shared interests.

The chief argument for restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba is that it gives the U.S. more influence to advance its interests in relations with Havana. If a diplomatic opening helps to improve Cuba’s political system, that is a welcome side-effect, but it is a mistake to judge the merits of diplomatic engagement so quickly and to hold it to such an unrealistic standard. The U.S. shouldn’t need to have a reason to establish normal relations with one of its closest neighbors. This is something that should exist as a matter of course. It may be that having an improved relationship with Havana will eventually allow Washington to have some constructive influence on Cuban political change, or it may not, but either way having normal relations with Cuba is a good thing for both countries.

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Spinning Failure in Iowa

Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com

Jeet Heer anticipates the spinning that will follow tonight’s results:

It’s inevitable that some candidate in the crowded Republican field will under-perform tomorrow. How will his or her supporters spin the dismal news? History offers a guide. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani came in sixth in Iowa with 3 percent of the vote. You would think that such a terrible showing would be impossible to gild into a shining achievement. Yet John Podhoretz of Commentary wrote, “The result in Iowa could not have been better for Giuliani tactically.” David Frum, another Giuliani supporter, enthused, “Yet as the smoke clears, it’s going to become apparent that Rudy was the night’s big winner.”

This spinning for Giuliani was driven by the pundits’ desire that their preferred candidate would prevail in the end. Failure in Iowa could be dismissed because Giuliani was always a horrible fit with Iowa Republicans, and because the result fit in with his risible “wait until Florida” strategy. Heer quotes Giuliani in an old 2008 post saying this:

This is a strategy we selected–it is the only strategy that can work for us and it’s a good one…and given the nature of the race which is wide open, we think it is going to turn out to be a smart strategy.

As we know (and knew at the time), it was a ridiculous strategy, and it was never going to work in Giuliani’s favor. Despite that, Giuliani and his fans stayed on message that a poor result in Iowa was consistent with their plan, and so they pretended that failure was a rare species of victory. Ultimately, it didn’t do him any good, but it allowed his fans to keep kidding themselves that he might become the nominee.

My guess is that the Rubio campaign will underperform tonight. His campaign organization is not that good, his support is relatively soft, and he neglected to campaign in Iowa as much as many of his competitors. Like Giuliani, he has a campaign strategy that makes no sense and can’t work. Nonetheless, we already know that he has a ready supply of boosters eager to turn a mediocre showing into proof that his “moment” has finally arrived. Jason Zengerle remarked on this last night:

Virtually no one will celebrate or try to explain away poor results for the other “establishment” candidates. For one thing, they have already been written off, and for another it doesn’t help Rubio to minimize the bad results of his New Hampshire rivals. The story that a lot of pundits and journalists want to be able to tell after tonight is that Rubio has exceeded expectations. That is more than a little amusing since many of them have continually gone out of their way to raise those expectations beyond what the candidate could achieve, but this is the story that Rubio boosters have to tell to keep the illusion going that his campaign strategy won’t fail. It is the story many of them will try to tell regardless of how underwhelming the result may be. Bear that in mind when we hear that Rubio is the “real” winner tonight. There was probably never going to be a result that would make his boosters say otherwise. Rubio will be just as much the winner in Iowa tonight as he was the “real” front-runner months ago. That is to say, not at all.

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Trump Leads in Iowa

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The final Des Moines Register poll was released over the weekend, showing Trump slightly ahead of Cruz (28-23%) and Clinton barely ahead of Sanders (45-42%). Trump and Clinton have gained ground over the last month:

Ann Selzer, whose firm conducts the polls, told me before the poll was released that the late momentum usually matters as much as the top-line results. That appears to have gone in Clinton’s and Trump’s favor. Both added supporters in January while their main rivals, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz respectively, lost some.

As Cruz has been passed by Trump, he has looked for another way to shore up his position besides attacking the front-runner. In the closing days of the contest, Cruz has directed his attacks against Rubio instead. Though the Rubio campaign wanted to spin these attacks as proof of “Marcomentum,” the poll found no evidence that Rubio was enjoying a late surge:

Support for Rubio, who has emerged as the leading establishment candidate, remained flat as the caucuses near. In fact, over the four days of the survey, his support dropped the last two days.

The thinking behind Cruz’s targeting of Rubio was that many of Rubio’s supporters are not firmly committed to backing him and could switch to another candidate. Rubio’s support is the softest of the top three Republicans:

A whopping 71 percent of Trump’s supporters say they’re certain they’ll vote for him, compared to just 29 percent who may yet switch, the Iowa Poll found. Among Rubio’s supporters, 47 percent were committed while 53 percent said they may switch to another candidate.

Cruz is the most likely to benefit if the Floridian’s supporters switch to another candidate, as Cruz is the second-choice preference of most of them. Cruz is reputed to have the best organization in Iowa, so he is better-positioned to poach uncertain supporters of other candidates than any of his rivals. I assume Cruz will outperform the 23% he received in the last poll, while I suspect Rubio will not quite get his 15% in part because he’ll lose some supporters to Cruz during the caucuses. My guess is that Trump has enough of an edge to hold off Cruz, but the final result will be close enough that it shouldn’t do too much damage to Cruz’s prospects elsewhere.

Predictions: Trump 31% Cruz 28% Rubio 13% Carson 9% Paul 7%
Clinton 49% Sanders 48% O’Malley 3%

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