In the last week but especially in the days since Ted Cruz’s victories in Maine and Kansas, pressure has grown on Marco Rubio to drop out. Rubio may have gotten under Donald Trump’s skin in the last two debates but Cruz was the one who appeared to benefit as he won five states slowing, if not entirely halting the frontrunner’s momentum. Both Cruz and Trump responded to Rubio’s failure to win more than the Minnesota caucus by calling for him to get out of the race. Even though the anti-Trump cause would seem to rely on Rubio beating Trump in Florida while John Kasich won Ohio, Cruz’s backers believed the Florida senator was finished. Though few thought Rubio would even consider bailing on the race before the March 15 winner-take-all primary was held, the Cruz camp was operating under the assumption that he was so far behind Trump that there was no point persisting in the idea that he had a chance. In response, Rubio claimed his own polling showed a very different story than the one told by the last Florida surveys that were published ten days ago that gave Trump a 20 point lead.
But a new Monmouth poll vindicates Rubio’s belief that Trump’s lead has shrunk drastically. It shows him still trailing Trump but this time by only eight points. Monmouth’s figures give Trump 38 percent, Rubio 30, Cruz 17 and Kasich 10.
While losing in your home state by eight points is nothing to celebrate, it does confirm the same trend we’ve been seeing elsewhere as large Trump leads have narrowed as election day drew closer. With eight days to go in a race with as many ups and downs as any in recent memory, anything can happen but it would be insane for Rubio, who has the money and the local organization to compete in Florida, to give up. Moreover, the poll demonstrates that Cruz is too far back to possibly supplant Rubio as the leading non-Trump there, let alone to beat the real estate mogul.
That means it makes sense for Cruz to concentrate his efforts elsewhere rather than to invest more resources in Florida solely to undermine Rubio. Cruz’s backers have a point when they say Rubio, whose campaign has looked shaky in the last week, should have done the same in states where he had little chance. That is especially true once candidates no longer can get a share of delegates even in places where they lose.
It may be that Cruz’s case that he is the only candidate that can ultimately defeat Trump is better right now than anything Rubio can muster on his own behalf. But it bears repeating that if Trump wins Florida and Ohio, where he now holds a slim lead over Kasich, and then he may be unstoppable even if that means Cruz is left alone to oppose him from that point. With all of the delegates from those two states, Trump will only need to win slightly more than 50 percent of those yet to be allocated. But if Rubio and Kasich hold serve in their home states, it will take a herculean effort by Trump involving him winning more than 67 percent of the remaining delegates to get to the majority he needs to claim the nomination. In other words, if stopping Trump is your priority, helping rather than burying Rubio in Florida is the obvious strategy.
With this poll and his win in Puerto Rico (which admittedly does little to bolster his national standing but might help in Florida), Rubio now has a little more wind in his sails. Had he continued to trail Trump by more than 20 percent, it might have made sense for him to give up. Now there is no reason at all for him to do so.
Assumptions about this race have changed every week since it began and these next ten days are no exception. The truth is none of the non-Trumps have a clear path to the nomination. After all, Trump wants a one-on-one race with him precisely because he believes he can slaughter the Texas senator in the northern and Midwestern states that have yet to hold their primaries. A revived Rubio coming off a Florida win might stand a better chance of being the best alternative to Trump in places like New York and Pennsylvania than Cruz. The same might also be said of Kasich.
But for now Cruz’s understandable eagerness to be the last non-Trump standing should be put on hold. If Trump is to be stopped, it still means beating him in Florida and it is crystal clear now that if anyone is to do it, it will be Rubio. If Rubio fails, that will finish him and then there will be no reason for him or anyone else to stand between Cruz and a final battle with Trump. But that is a discussion for March 16. Until then, those hoping to save the GOP from Trump’s vulgar contempt for conservative principles — something that Cruz and his supporters rightly understand is imperative to preserve conservatism and to have any chance of beating Hillary Clinton in November — need to cease calling for Rubio’s withdrawal and let him take his shot in Florida.