As the polls predicted, Super Tuesday was a very big night for Donald Trump. Having won at least seven states, he now has a commanding lead in delegates. More to the point by demonstrating an ability to win large pluralities in both the north and the south, Trump can argue that he is on the verge of becoming the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.
Over the last month as Trump began rolling up victories, the assumption on the part of his opponents has been that he would be beaten once the field was winnowed. That hasn’t happened. While Trump is still benefitting from a split field in some states, in others he is piling up large pluralities and winning among demographic groups like evangelicals and very conservative voters that were supposed to belong to Ted Cruz while also bringing in large numbers of new voters to the GOP who are attracted by his populist message. If this continues, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t considering that disasters like his Ku Klux Klan remarks seemed to have very little impact on the voters, it’s hard to see how Trump is stopped.
But Trump’s good luck wasn’t limited to his own results. He was also fortunate in that both of his major competitors got just enough encouragement from Super Tuesday to be able to stay in the race. Ted Cruz got a must-win triumph in his home state of Texas and also won neighboring Oklahoma. That enabled him to declare that he was the only person to have beaten Trump and “prayerfully” urged the other non-Trumps to get out of the race to let him have a clear one-on-one shot against the frontrunner.
But by the end of the night, Rubio finally had his first win by taking the Minnesota Caucus. Combined with a strong effort in Virginia where he fell short to Trump, Rubio wound up winning a considerable share of the delegates though not so many as he might have had if he had done just a bit better in Texas.
If those desperate to stop Trump were hoping that Super Tuesday would lead to a further winnowing of the field, that didn’t happen. Cruz may believe that Trump’s victories in the north and south and his lead in Rubio’s home state of Florida show that the Floridian can’t win. By the same token, Rubio can claim that he finished ahead of the Texan in six states and Cruz’s failure to win the SEC states in the south on Tuesday demonstrates that he is the one who has no path to victory.
Which one of them is right? The problem for Trump critics is that they both may be correct.
Rubio’s prospects in the upcoming states may be slightly brighter than that of Cruz but unless he catches fire in a way that hasn’t happened yet, it’s difficult to see how he finishes ahead of Trump. The same can be said of Cruz.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that at this point the only hope to stop Trump is for them all to stay in the fight. Nobody other than Rubio has a prayer of beating Trump in Florida. That is probably also true of John Kasich in Ohio. If they all stay in for at least two more weeks and split those winner-take-all states, it’s conceivable that Trump could be denied a majority of delegates by that point.
Yet even if that does happen, Trump’s strength across the country in all demographic groups may be enough to beat any and all comers and to start building up delegate totals that will make him the presumptive Republican candidate.
Had the field been winnowed sooner perhaps it might have been possible for Rubio to consolidate mainstream Republican voters behind him. Had he or other Republicans concentrated their fire on Trump the way they have in the last week, it’s also possible to imagine that such a tactic might have had an impact on the race.
But these counterfactual theories miss the message that Republican voters have been sending their party in the last several weeks. They don’t seem to care that Trump isn’t a true conservative and is on many issues such as foreign policy, ObamaCare and entitlement reform, closer to Hillary Clinton than he is to most Republicans. They want someone without political experience and are delighted with Trump’s outrageous statements because they disdain political correctness. They are not to be dissuaded from their infatuation with the reality star by logic or an all-out attack on Trump’s record of scandals and contradictions that were ignored for too long by his rivals. Nor should anyone have confidence that a massive spending campaign aimed at beating up Trump in the upcoming states will succeed where past efforts failed.
Super Tuesday left the non-Trumps just enough hope for them all to keep going. Though their best-case scenarios may be more wishful thinking than hard-headed analysis, it is still possible to imagine Trump being denied a clear majority of delegates by the time the dust settles in a couple of months. Certainly if Rubio can come from behind and win Florida on March 15th it may be possible for the party to consolidate behind him. But if he loses there, he’s finished.
But all the delegate counting and strategizing about who will drop out when won’t matter if Trump continues to demonstrate an ability to win in all regions of the country by winning conservatives, evangelicals and working-class voters that are new to the GOP. Even if this week’s results haven’t eliminated any of his competitors, and perhaps even because of that, Trump is still very much on track to be the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. That may well mark the end of the GOP as a conservative party and lead to a cataclysmic landslide defeat in November. But right now that’s still the most likely outcome.