Donald Trump appears to have won all 50 delegates in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, but this hasn’t stopped certain pundits from proclaiming Marco Rubio the real story. Rubio took second place with just .2 percent more of the vote than Ted Cruz received. While Cruz was supposed to have an advantage given the state’s large evangelical vote, Rubio had the endorsements of key figures in the state’s political establishment, notably Governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. That Trump beat both of his main rivals anyway, and that neither of those rivals decisively beat the other, is a testament to Trump’s success. This was a tougher test than he’d faced in New Hampshire, and he passed.
Jeb Bush did not—and so he dropped out. In 2000, his brother had used South Carolina as a firewall against John McCain—who had won New Hampshire—by uniting the evangelical and establishment vote behind that year’s Bush. And in 1996, South Carolina helped save Bob Dole from Pat Buchanan—another indication of power of the establishment in the Palmetto State. This year the establishment was divided between Rubio and Bush (who had the endorsement of South Carolina’s other senator, Lindsey Graham). But then the right was divided between Trump and Cruz. (John Kasich and Ben Carson, each of whom received about 7 percent of the vote, also contributed to the fragmentation.)
Cruz has grounds for complaint about the way Rubio has been anointed by the media. Consider: if Rubio had finished .2 percent behind Cruz, instead of .2 percent head of him, would any of the pundits now calling Rubio a winner have changed their tune? The nice thing about being the insiders’ favorite is that it doesn’t matter whether you finish second or third—you’re still on top.
Conventional wisdom now has it that Rubio will vault ahead by soaking up Bush’s support. But wait a minute: what support? If Rubio had received every vote that went to Bush in South Carolina, Trump would still have won. And Bush’s support in South Carolina, where he spent millions and flew in his brother to stump for him, was greatly inflated relative to his support just about anywhere else. In the only February poll of Georgia, one of a dozen states that will vote March 1, Bush was at 3 percent. In Arkansas, he was at 1 percent. Even in Virginia—a swing state where Rubio is within striking distance of Trump—adding Bush’s 4 percent to Rubio’s 22 doesn’t beat Trump’s 28. (And in Virginia, Kasich has been polling ahead of Bush. At least some Bush voters are likely to opt for Kasich over Rubio.)
Rubio is picking up additional donors and endorsements as he becomes the establishment’s consensus choice—but then, all of Bush’s once overwhelming financial backing and his anointment by the establishment and media a year ago didn’t do him much good in the end. (I too thought Bush would be a juggernaut with all that behind him: I was wrong.) Yes, such things are better to have than not to have, as are the votes Rubio will reap from Bush’s departure. But these are marginal gains: they don’t transform the race.
The primaries on March 1, however, really will be transformative, and in complicated ways. Each of the three prime contenders for the nomination—Trump, Cruz, Rubio—will have something to brag about on March 2. Cruz should handily win Texas and ought to have a shot in Oklahoma as well. Rubio can win Minnesota; he’s a plausible candidate for Tim Pawlenty voters, just as he is assuredly the candidate of the Tim Pawlenty pundits who hyped the Gopher State governor’s chances in 2012. Virginia is in play for Rubio, and Colorado as well. Trump faces a new challenge in having to campaign in several places at once—he’s proven he can win states like New Hampshire and states like South Carolina, but can he win Massachusetts and Georgia on the same day, while fighting elsewhere as well? In some of the Super Tuesday contests, the fact that Ben Carson is still in the race may prove more significant than Jeb Bush’s dropping out. If Carson draws large enough percentages of evangelicals, he can make the difference between a Cruz victory or a Trump victory—or in Colorado especially, a Rubio victory against both of them.
Kasich has little chance of winning anywhere on March 1, but a few respectable second- or third-place showings should keep his campaign alive long enough to score its first victory—a delegate-rich one—when Ohio votes on March 15. That same day, Florida will be a make-or-break for Rubio: if he loses to Trump (or Cruz) in his home state, it’s hard to see what his argument is for remaining a viable prospect for the nomination. If Rubio wins Florida, however, he’ll not only have a weighty delegate bloc, he’ll have made a prima facie case for his strength in the general election. Indeed, for all the factiousness of the Republican contest, the fact that the GOP has candidates who may hold special appeal for the battleground states of Ohio and Florida in November must be a source of comfort. And notably, Rubio and Kasich are the Republicans who poll best against Hillary Clinton in hypothetical general-election match-ups.
But it’s a long way yet until November, or even the GOP convention in July. And if Trump has disrupted Republican politics so profoundly—ending, for now, the Bush dynasty and defying all pundits’ expectations—who’s to say he can’t also rip up the playbook in a general election? As for Cruz, he’s the one rival to beat Trump so far, and he’s beaten Rubio more often than not. (Again, imagine how different press coverage would be if Rubio, rather than Cruz, had finished third in New Hampshire.)
After Iowa, I predicted that the Republican establishment, movement conservatives, and a superficial media would concoct a narrative that would help make Rubio the nominee. Just as the Trump phenomenon itself has been media driven, or was at the start, a media-driven Rubio storyline could do wonders for the Florida senator. (The money and organizational resources that come with being the establishment’s pick are also nothing to scoff at, however inadequate they proved to be for Jeb Bush.) Only Rubio’s disastrous debate performance before New Hampshire and his fifth-place finish in that first primary made it impossible to stick to the story.
Now it’s back. And I still think this elite bias in his favor is one of Rubio’s strongest assets. But there’s a difference between acknowledging that hype matters and actually believing it. Based only on the outcomes so far, Trump is the solid frontrunner and Cruz, not Rubio, is his nearest rival. That might change a week from Tuesday, but it’s what voters up to now—not the pundits—have decided.