Last night was not a knockout punch for either Donald Trump or any of his competitors on the Republican side. As we’ll discuss later, there are clear winners and losers. Trump had a very good night and is clearly the story for the morning. There won’t be any dropouts (at least that we can predict right now). Expect to see the rhetoric ramp into high gear in anticipation of a debate tomorrow night and more states voting this Saturday, next Tuesday, and then the critically important Florida and Ohio primaries on March 15.
Most polling that was released in the last few days called (most) races fairly close to where they wound up. The exception seemed to be that Trump was oversampled in Texas and Oklahoma while Cruz was undersampled in both states. Rubio outperformed polling in Virginia, but had shown sharp upward momentum in recent days. Buoyed by heavy turnout in Northern Virginia, Rubio’s small (based on percentages) loss to Trump in Virginia will likely be a delegate wash.
Despite Bernie Sanders’ wins in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado and Vermont, he was unable to shift the dialogue away from the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination. He still has a huge campaign war chest and a desire to fight on, but the map is not friendly to those wanting to “feel the Bern.”
Caucuses are still proving unfriendly to Trump. Of the four states where he lost last night, two (Minnesota and Alaska) were caucus states. Added to Iowa, of the states Trump has lost (TX, MN, AK, OK, and IA), three were caucus states. Given that Kansas and Kentucky are both caucus states and are voting Saturday, we will get a clearer picture on whether this sampling is significant or not. To be fair, Trump won the Nevada caucus in a landslide.
As of the time of writing, the delegate allocations are still being tabulated. We can project the statewide delegate totals, but most of the states voting last night allocate around half of their delegates to statewide results. The rest of the delegates will be awarded on a congressional district basis.
Donald Trump. You can’t look at last night’s results without coming to the conclusion that Donald Trump is the favorite to win the Republican nomination. You may not like it. You may ask how the Party got to this point. But here’s the reality: Trump’s path to the outright nomination (1,237 or more delegates by the time of the convention) isn’t much of an uphill climb. If we’re looking into a crystal ball, we’d think he should reach this number (all other factors being equal) between the New York primary on April 19 or the Mid-Atlantic Primaries on April 26th (don’t hold to this projection, it’s just how most of the numbers would play out at this point.
Trump is also a winner because of his decision to hold a quasi-press conference last night in Florida (quasi for the fact that normal press was interspersed with cheering staffers/supporters). It was a gutsy move: taking press questions with all the news cameras on him and heavy viewership tuned in (gutsy because, heck, one “gotcha” question and that’s the news story in the morning). Most, if not all, politicians use the time and coverage they get on primary nights to give a rally speech. Trump chose presidential optics. It paid off. Glib, funny, and at east, Trump’s press conference was Presidential. Again, you may not like Donald Trump, but Trump at ease and willing to talk with reporters is Trump at his best. Last night was no exception.
Ted Cruz. For the second time in the campaign, Ted Cruz over-performed on a night where he had to get a win. Cruz exceeded most late polling numbers in Texas and won both Oklahoma and Alaska (neither had particularly reliable polling going into the night, so it was a bit of a surprise). Almost more importantly for Cruz: he came in second in a lot of other states. While the “second place is the real winner” storyline is more journalists trying to make a story where none exists in most cases, Cruz’s strong performance will bolster his delegate totals. Cruz’s “victory” speech contrasted heavily with Trump’s press conference. Cruz called for all other “Non-Trump” candidates to unite behind him because he has shown he can win against Trump. At a baseline level, this is, factually, correct. The problem is that the map for Cruz gets much harder in the coming weeks. He needs a strong performance in caucuses this Saturday and then primaries next week to prove he’s a national candidate.
FoxNews’ Thursday Debate. Given that Trump didn’t win every state handily, he’ll likely show up to Thursday’s Megyn Kelly (et al.) moderated FoxNews debate (he skipped the last one). While Trump could try to push that he is the clear frontrunner and no more debates are necessary, his skipping the debate would give his opponents several hours of free airtime to attack him without response. Expect fireworks (and higher ratings).
(Vice President) John Kasich. If John Kasich wants to be Trump’s running mate, he can add last night to his resume. Kasich’s presence in the race likely prevented Marco Rubio from having a huge PR victory in Virginia.
Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio finally won a state: Minnesota. Beyond that, Super Tuesday was a disaster for Rubio. Bafflingly, his campaign staff upped expectations about second-and-first place finishes on the eve of voting. In the end, it looks like Rubio may be shut out of any delegates in at least three states. This wasn’t the story Rubio wanted going forward. If all Rubio can win is the Minnesota caucus (and, given his strong performance in Northern Virginia), the District of Columbia, he runs the risk of being the “Walter Mondale” of the Republican race (this observation was originally made by Philip Bump at the Washington Post). Rubio’s “try to be Trump and use potty humor” strategy is getting old, fast. The people who don’t want to vote for Trump aren’t going to vote for an even cruder version. Rubio needs to retool, again, or he’s going to have an extremely difficult time justifying his campaign beyond a loss in Florida.
(Governor) John Kasich. Kasich came close to winning Vermont (yeah, he can argue that if Rubio had gotten out of the race, Kasich would have won). Kasich will get some delegates out of the night, but his real test comes on March 15 in Ohio. While he is polling within the margin of error to win his home state, without any momentum victories for the next few weeks, it’s hard to see how Kasich is able to swim against the current for much longer. At least for now, Kasich will be buoyed by a very shaken Rubio. Expect to see at least a few “establishment-types” float the “why not Kasich” trial balloon in the next few days.
The “GOP Establishment.” Rubio’s poor performance gives rise to the storyline “based on the math, it’s now a race between Cruz and Trump.” If you’re an inside-DC Republican, this is your nightmare. Trump may be bad (in your mind), but Cruz is worse. Expect a few more pronouncements of “in a race of Cruz v. Trump, I’d go with Trump” in the next week.
Chris Christie. His odd facial expressions during the Trump presser made him the object of ridicule on social media.
Hillary Clinton’s November Strategies. In her victory speech, Hillary Clinton targeted “rust belt” workers and values. She’s seeing that a Trump-Kasich (?) ticket would be her nightmare in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and even New York.
Michael Bloomberg. Not mentioned in the coverage last night, the (other) New York billionaire is also not getting the “let’s get behind a third party” treatment from any disaffected GOP establishment-types.
Ben Sasse. The first-term conservative Senator from Nebraska said that he would look towards a third option if Trump steamrolled towards the nomination. He may have to put his money where his mouth is.
GOP Pundits. The “opinion shapers” of the “conservative” media have, repeatedly, gotten this election wrong.
GOP Loyalty Pledges. The tables have now turned on GOP folks who wanted Trump (and his supporters) to pledge to support the nominee of the Republican Party. It now looks likely they will have to swallow their pride and make the best of, what in their minds is, a “catastrophe for conservatism.”
Ben Carson. He’s a nice guy but why is he still running? We may never know, but Ted Cruz sure would have liked Carson’s 5-10% in some southern states.
Mitt Romney. He had the opportunity to jump in the race and didn’t. He had the opportunity to outright endorse Marco Rubio and didn’t. Now, the former GOP nominee is sniping at the presumptive GOP nominee on Twitter. Not a good look.