GOP Establishment Primary Between Bush, Rubio Heats Up

Republican nominee for Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R) is greeted by former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush during his 'Reclaim America Victory Celebration' at the Biltmore Hotel on November 2, 2010 in Coral Gables, Florida. Results show that Rubio has clinched the Florida Senate seat against his opponents, Independent …
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In 100 days, Iowa voters will meet in caucuses and begin the process of selecting a Republican nominee for President. A Politico survey of political insiders last week found a spike in the number who said Donald Trump could win the GOP nomination.

The rise of the outsider candidates was dismissed as a Summer fling, but with the primary entering its final stretch, establishment Republicans are on high alert.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson have topped the Republican field for more than 4 months now. In the latest ABC poll, the two combined have the support of a majority of Republicans nationwide. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are third and fourth, with just 17 percent support between them.

In state polls, the results for Rubio and Bush are more troubling. Trump and Carson dominate the Republican field in all of the states polled to date. Third place fluctuates between Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or, in New Hampshire Bush. In Iowa, Rubio is fourth and Bush is fifth and in South Carolina, Rubio is third and Bush is sixth.

The consistency of the national and state polls is starting to have an impact on the nomination battle itself. In the ABC News poll, 43 percent of voters expect Donald Trump to win the nomination. Just 12 percent expect Bush to win and only 6 percent expect Rubio to ultimately prevail. At some point, campaigns that are perceived to be winning beginning attracting support precisely because they are winning. Trump has very adroitly made his strong poll showing a central plank of his campaign pitch.

This weekend, Jeb Bush and his family, including his father and brother, hunkered down with supporters and donors in Houston, hopping to reassure them that the campaign still had a path to victory. Marco Rubio, for his part, has been criss-crossing the country meeting with donors to pitch his campaign efforts. Rubio has spent the least amount of time off all the major candidates in the early voting states.

While Jeb Bush campaigns hard across the early states and hits turbulence, Rubio is trying to stay out of the campaign scrum and be the establishment’s best hope to avert an outsider nominee. Rubio has likely spent more time courting Shelden Adelson, the free-spending Republican casino magnate, than caucus-goers in Iowa.

Last week, the Bush and Rubio campaigns got into a heated back-and-forth in the media, a sign that they are fighting for the same political turf. Together, Rubio and Bush command 15-20 percent support in the Republican primary. Only if that support is coalesced behind one candidate does it have a chance of withstanding the wave of support for anti-establishment candidates like Trump, Carson, Cruz or Fiorina.

The looming deadline for both Bush and Rubio isn’t Iowa or New Hampshire, though. Florida votes in its primary on March 15. It is one of the first states to vote under the RNC’s winner-take-all rules this election cycle. Prior to that date, delegates are awarded proportionally, with the top candidates winning at least a share of the delegates at stake.

On March 15, though, Illinois and Florida vote and the top candidate in each state will win almost all the delegates at stake. The delegates on offer in these states will far eclipse the delegates at stake in the early states.

Either Rubio or Bush would be considered a favorite for Florida’s delegates. With both on the ballot, though, the odds of another candidate winning Florida increase. Currently, Rubio is third and Bush is fourth in Florida. Their combined vote, 24 percent, would narrowly lead the field, however.

The Republican establishment needs one of the two to drop out before the Florida primary vote on March 15. It can withstand outsiders doing well in the early states, if the large, winner-take-all primary states fall back into the Republican fold. Combining some early state wins with the larger states in late March, however, would put the nomination far out-of-reach of the Republican establishment.

In 1980, the Republican establishment rallied behind George H. W. Bush to prevent Ronald Reagan from winning the GOP primary. The effort failed, largely because the Republican voter base had already moved far beyond the establishment by the time it rallied behind Bush.

The Bush family is no doubt hoping the establishment quickly rallies again behind another generation of its dynasty. It likely will rally behind a politician from Florida, but his name is more likely to be Rubio than Bush.