The conventional wisdom currently fascinating political insiders is that the Republican nomination fight will ultimately come down to a battle between Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Setting aside the rather obvious point that insiders have been wrong about virtually everything during this campaign, the match-up makes a certain amount of sense on paper. It doesn’t really make sense according to the polls, though.
Narratively, though, a final fight between two telegenic first-term Senators with Hispanic roots representing different wings of the conservative movement is the kind of match-up political junkies dream about. Rubio is the best defender of the Republican establishment, while Cruz articulates the voters’ frustration with Washington with a masterful, prosecutorial zeal.
The match-up would, in every important way, be a fight for the future of the Republican party and the conservative movement.
With just two months until the first votes are cast for the Republican nomination, though, that match-up is still just a fantasy. For four months, the Republican nomination battle has been dominated by Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ben Carson. Together, these two command the support of a majority of Republican voters. Rubio and Cruz, while gaining support in the past two weeks, still only have around 10 percent of support each nationally.
The disparity between the frontrunners Trump and Carson and the other candidates is so large, in fact, that combining the support for Rubio and Cruz would place this hybrid candidate third in the nomination fight. The same is true in most state-level polling.
At this point, imagining an ultimate contest between Rubio and Cruz is like wondering who, other than Apple, has the most popular smartphone. There is certainly a lot of interesting discussion to be had on that question, but it’s of little real consequence as long as people still clamor for the latest iPhone.
Ever since Trump and Carson announced their campaigns for President, there has been a presumption among political pundits that these candidates would fade. Just about every week for the past several months, a pundit has predicted the imminent demise of Trump or Carson. It may still happen, but the predictions, at this point, would amount to nothing more than the broken-clock fallacy, i.e. even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The predicted Rubio v. Cruz match-up only makes sense if Trump or Carson are completely out of the picture. Their support could still fade before the first votes are cast, but it is unlikely either of them exit the nomination. Carson’s campaign has raised the most money and Trump isn’t bound by any concerns from donors. Each still has twice the support of any other candidate for the nomination.
Even weakened, Trump and Carson will still exert a powerful influence on the nomination battle. They will still consume oxygen that other candidates, particularly Rubio, need to gain traction. Cruz is second to Carson in the money race and has a large field organization. He is well positioned for the basket of Southern primaries that immediately follow the first-four early voting states.
Rubio’s postion is more ephemeral. He jumpstarted his campaign by transferring around $4 million from his Senate reelection account to his Presidential campaign. Beyond that, his fundraising has been modest and, until recently, he has campaigned little in the early voting states. His candidacy seems built more on his own biography than any real policy positions. His signature legislative achievement, shepherding passage of the Senate’s amnesty legislation is far more popular in Washington than the rest of the nation. He seems to be focused more on the insiders’ primary than the voters’ primary.
According the Reuter’s 5-day moving polling average, Trump has increased his standing in the Republican race since the Paris terrorist attacks. Carson has stumbled a few points, but support for Cruz and Rubio has held steady, with no major uptick.
The attack in Paris is exactly the kind of event insiders predicted would doom outsiders like Trump and Carson. So far, the major polling impact has been a drop in support for Carson and an increase in support for Sen. Rand Paul. The current insider frontrunners, Rubio and Cruz, have experience no real change in support.
Insider predictions for the nomination race are fun to read, but they won’t really tell you anything about the state of the campaign.