A new poll of Florida Republicans shows Donald Trump the clear frontrunner in the Sunshine State.
With 27 percent support of likely GOP voters, Trump leads his nearest rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, by 11 points. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a distant fourth, tied with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 12 percent.
Florida’s primary on March 15 is a winner-take-all contest, i.e. the top candidate statewide will win all the delegates at stake. As a result, it is highly likely the Republican establishment in the state will try to coalesce behind either Bush or Rubio. It is almost impossible to imagine that either of them can win the delegate-rich state if both are on the ballot.
The poll, conducted by Viewpoint Florida interviewed 2,047 likely Republican voters and has a margin of error of 2.2 percent. The poll was taken after last week’s CNBC debate, where Bush challenged Rubio about his Senate attendance, a preview of Bush’s more aggressive stance against his one-time protege. According to this poll, Rubio came out of that exchange stronger than Bush.
Without Bush in the race, Rubio’s support jumps 8 points and puts him just 3 points behind Trump, 24-27. Bush, though, doesn’t benefit if Rubio exits the race. Without Rubio on the ballot, Trump’s support moves up to 28 percent and Ben Carson and Ted Cruz vie for second place. Bush remains in fourth place, with 17 percent support.
This is a death-knell for the Bush campaign. The Republican establishment gains nothing if Rubio drops out of the race. If Bush drops out, however, Rubio is in a strong position to win the state next March. Bush has ample resources in his Super PAC to challenge Rubio, though. He could mortally wound Rubio, but it isn’t clear that he would benefit.
“What this poll says to conservatives like me is that if you want to stop Donald Trump, Jeb is not your guy in Florida,” said Randy Nielsen, a Florida political consultant who conducted the poll. “The data show it’s Rubio,” he told Politico. Nielsen has disclosed that he favors Rubio in the nomination contest.
Bush’s challenge is that he was last on the ballot in 2002, more than a decade ago. Only around half of Republican voters in the state, 46 percent, were active voters in that election. A majority cast their first ballots in elections after Bush was last a candidate.
“This presidential campaign is a reminder that Jeb Bush has only faced one serious opponent in his campaigns and he lost,” wrote Brian Crowley, a political reporter in Florida, referencing Bush’s losing campaign against Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994. “The fact is Bush’s electoral successes have had more to do with the weaknesses of his opponents. Bush has not run against a Republican in more than 20 years.”
Even in his home state, the political train has left Bush behind. His challenge to remind voters of his long-ago record as governor is further complicated by an electorate that is in a zealous anti-establishment mood. One establishment-backed candidate can prevail in a multi-candidate field, but two cannot. Bush, according to this poll, is the weaker option compared to Rubio.
Bush has to tear down Rubio to have any hope of prevailing. Last week’s debate, though, suggests he isn’t up to that task.