In 2000, Florida settled the presidential election with dangling chads. Now we’ve got a dangling Marco, as Senator Rubio looks destiny in the eye across the great GOP electoral shuffleboard court of the Sunshine State.
Meanwhile, Governor John Kasich stacks his chips on a safer-looking bet in Ohio, and the GOP Establishment struggles with the possibility that the only serious alternative to Donald Trump is someone they dislike even more: Senator Ted Cruz.
Everyone except Donald Trump is making elaborate calculations about whether it’s better for Rubio to win or lose in Florida. Trump just wants to win, evidently having no great interest in elaborate theories about how keeping Rubio in the race splits the anti-Trump vote. Trump gets a lot of political mileage out of winning, and declaring his opponents losers. He can drive a long way by pouring 99 delegates from winner-take-all Florida into his gas tank.
Ted Cruz is supposedly making a big play for Florida not because he has much hope of winning, but because he wants Rubio out of the race, to consolidate the anti-Trump vote behind him. (Also, as Politico points out, forcing Rubio to defend Florida keeps him from fighting Cruz effectively in other states.) His problem is that Florida locked in a substantial early vote for Rubio, plus a smaller but still significant early vote for Trump. No matter what happens next, critics of extended early voting have a new talking point.
Rubio’s campaign was outraged by CNN’s story about nameless advisers urging Rubio to drop out of the race before the Florida primary because, even as they strongly challenge its veracity, they have to admit it sounds plausible. The effect of losing Florida on Rubio’s once-glittering political future would be devastating, especially if his campaign folds up soon afterward… and it’s rather difficult to envision a Cinderella-story ending where Rubio comes back from a Florida loss to triumph at a brokered convention and emerge as the 2016 presidential nominee.
What does it say about Rubio that his constituents know Florida could be his last stand, and only by voting for him can they keep those 99 delegates away from Trump, who they’ve been told is the ruin of the Republican Party, the front-runner who loses so many late-deciding voters… but they still aren’t lining up behind their native son en masse?
With only a week to go, the best encouragement his campaign can give voters is to say they’re “closing” on Trump and “tightening” the race. He may yet pull ahead, but it doesn’t look good at all that he’s doing it with a slow, reluctant, possibly insufficient trickle of voters, compared to that huge lead in early ballots he banked during happier times.
Of course, dropping out right before Florida to save himself from a drubbing would look pretty bad, too, so Rubio might as well put all his chips on his home state and roll the dice, even if the odds look less than even. The most upbeat of the GOP presidential candidates can see few happy endings from where he sits today.
He gets to spend the homestretch before the fateful Florida primary reading obituaries for his campaign, even though it technically isn’t dead yet. His best hope is that if he really does pull off an upset and win Florida, grab those 99 delegates, and build it forward to become a contender again, it really would be a political Cinderella story for the ages. It’s unlikely… but this has been a most unlikely primary so far.
Rubio’s big strategic obstacle is that Cruz has emerged as the stronger non-Trump candidate, by far. In fact, it has been observed that much of Cruz’s surge is coming from Rubio voters as they abandon ship, with Trump holding fairly steady in races where Cruz dramatically outperformed his polls. A substantial chunk of Rubio’s vote isn’t waiting for him to drop out and endorse Cruz.
It’s difficult to see what might reverse a trend like that, during the decisive weeks of a primary. Cruz doesn’t make the kind of mistakes that would produce the campaign implosion Rubio needs. Trump does, but he’s proven himself implosion-proof, to the immense frustration of political astronomers waiting for him to collapse into a black hole.
And then you’ve got John Kasich, who has very clearly calculated that his moment is at hand. He has a better shot at winning his home state than Rubio does, according to the polls, and if he wins, he’ll make a play for moderate and Establishment votes as the last remaining alternative to Trump and Cruz. (Those voters are still struggling to decide which of those two is the lesser evil.) Kasich would benefit enormously from the end of the Rubio dream, which at this point is based largely on the belief Rubio polls better against Hillary Clinton than any other candidate, while Kasich is nobody’s idea of a voter-motivating general-election powerhouse.
Trump is actually ahead by a few points in Ohio at the moment, so the odds favor him winning both Florida and Ohio, taking all delegates from both… which would swiftly make this the two-man race Cruz wants. Sustaining campaign excitement is difficult when the rationale of the campaign is, “I can weaken the guy you don’t like, so somebody else can beat him.”
Republican voters looking for a commanding presence that can beat Hillary Clinton on the most slanted media landscape since… well, the last two elections… are going to wonder why the Party should be eager to trash the candidate who excites voters, in favor of one who doesn’t.
That’s the big problem with this brokered-convention endgame.
Trump and his voters won’t take it well at all if he’s denied the nomination with some procedural trick, and replaced by either a candidate he decisively defeated in the primaries, or someone who didn’t run against him at all. Most anti-Trump punditry is written as though he were winning by a point or two, using underhanded tactics or mass-media hypnosis, but he’s been winning because a lot of people are voting for him.
Political strategies that encourage all of the other candidates to stick it out for as long as possible, keeping the anti-Trump umbrella wide open – and even asking voters to strategically fall in behind candidates they don’t really like, just to deny Trump victory in key states – are guaranteed to produce a convention that will destroy the Party, field a candidate that doesn’t excite voters, and hand the worst Democrat candidate in living memory an easy win. Imagine what Trump and his voters will say, if the rules are hastily rewritten to accommodate candidates who don’t technically qualify to be in the first round of voting, because they couldn’t collect enough votes during the primaries and caucuses!
For those who can’t stand the thought of Trump as the Republican nominee, there are only two outcomes likely to produce a candidate who can win the general election: either someone else beats Trump outright in the primaries, or someone else runs so powerfully against him that both fail to gather the required number of delegates, leading to a convention that feels like a fair contest to all involved. Three, four, and five-candidate brokered-convention scenarios are recipes for either Party-shredding disaster, or Trump winning at the convention anyway.
Nate Silver observed on Monday that Democrat primary rules are much friendlier to the strategy of keeping marginal candidates in the race to bleed delegates away from insurgent front-runners, forcing a brokered convention, as Mitt Romney openly encouraged Republican primary voters to do. (They’re also much better at thwarting insurgencies, as frustrated Bernie Sanders voters can tell you.) Maybe Republicans were wise to design a system that would avoid that convention scenario, even if the want one now, because they never anticipated anything like the Trump tornado.
The bottom line is that forcing a convention shootout with a pack of weak candidates is a losing strategy. If the GOP can’t produce a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with Trump, they probably won’t be able to produce one that can win a slugfest with Hillary Clinton, 90 percent of the media, and an electorate that has been socially-engineered to produce Democrat presidential victories. If the candidates from two vital battleground states can’t beat Donald Trump in their winner-take-all contests, voters will wonder why the Party is working so hard to throw the election to someone else.