If Marco Rubio’s dominant debate performance, relentless mocking of Donald Trump’s appearance, and increased scrutiny of Trump’s business record don’t give the senator from Florida momentum on Super Tuesday, it’s hard to see how he wins the GOP nomination. Absent fresh polling, there are signs that Rubio is making inroads on the longstanding front-runner now that he’s gone full bore against him.
Rubio’s attacks on Trump have made this seem like a two-person race, even though Sen. Ted Cruz will be very much alive on Super Tuesday. Rubio may not have dented Trump’s hardened support, but it’s likely he’s picked off some Cruz backers. Glenn Beck and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, two top Cruz surrogates, praised Rubio’s debate performance. If other Cruz supporters feel that Rubio gives the GOP the best shot to stop Trump, expect some movement in Rubio’s direction.
Rubio is also hitting Trump where it hurts the most: the mythology of his business acumen. After raising questions about Trump University at the debate, media scrutiny followed. Trump ended up addressing the issue for six minutes at an Arkansas rally Saturday. Rubio is also drawing a sharp contrast between his earned success compared to the fortune that Trump inherited. By calling Trump a fraud and casting the race as a David-versus-Goliath fight for the future of conservatism, he’s galvanizing supporters and drawing new Republicans to the fight. The crowds at his events Saturday in Arkansas and Georgia were among the largest of his campaign.
There are some clear risks with Rubio’s newfound aggression. He’s stooping to Trump’s level (albeit good-naturedly), making it seem like the two candidates are engaged in a schoolyard brawl and not a presidential campaign. In turn, Trump has gone nuclear against Rubio, and enlisted one of the GOP’s best communicators (Chris Christie) to his side. But within the party establishment, both GOP moderates and conservatives were itching for someone to challenge Trump effectively, and Rubio has stepped up like a boxer with nothing to lose.
Without new polling, media coverage often feels like it’s flying blind—and there’s been next-to-none done since the debate. If anyone other than Trump had fared as poorly at the debate as he did, his political career would be on life support. On Super Tuesday, Rubio will need to translate momentum into a win somewhere, with Virginia’s primary and Minnesota’s caucuses giving him the best opportunity for his first victory. Voters in the 13 states with primaries and caucuses will determine if Trump still has his Teflon armor, or whether Rubio’s last-minute barrage is changing the trajectory of the race.
1. Hillary Clinton all but locked up the Democratic nomination Saturday night, winning a commanding 74 percent of the vote in South Carolina—thanks to her dominant performance with African-Americans. Making up a majority of the Democratic electorate in the state, they gave Clinton a whopping 87 percent of their votes. If that degree of support carries over to the Super Tuesday states in the South, Clinton will have comfortable victories across the board.
The biggest test for Bernie Sanders was whether he could expand his appeal with progressive whites and millennials to break the Clinton firewall with minorities. Iowa and New Hampshire feature two of the most homogeneous Democratic electorates in the country, and never answered the crucial question. But with Sanders struggling to connect with nonwhite voters in Nevada and South Carolina, it’s hard to see how he can forge a path to victory—even if he rebounds from Saturday’s humiliation.
By endorsing Trump, a self-interested Christie is betting that he can be politically relevant again by becoming the highest-ranking politician to sign on with the rogue candidate. But if his goal is to serve as attorney general in a future GOP president’s cabinet, he probably did himself more harm than good.
2. Christie is essentially betting that the odds of Trump winning the presidency are greater than Rubio winning the GOP’s nomination. Even if Trump is favored to win the GOP nomination, his chances of defeating Clinton are still long (as I outlined in my column last week). But if Rubio prevails, polls suggest he’d start out as a favorite in a general election against Clinton. If Rubio comes from behind to win the nomination, Christie’s endorsement of Trump foreclosed any opportunity to serve in a new administration.
Indeed, with many top Republicans outraged over Christie’s surprise Trump endorsement, it’s hard to see Christie having a political future after he leaves office unless Trump is inaugurated in January.
3. Rep. Chris Collins of New York became the first member of Congress to endorse Trump this week, and his own decision is as surprising as the fact that Trump finally received any Capitol Hill support. By backing Trump, Collins, a former Jeb Bush supporter, powerfully disproved the maxim that nearly every Bush backer is planning to support Rubio.
Equally significant is the district he represents, an upstate New York seat in the Buffalo area that has bled manufacturing jobs over the past couple of decades. Rust Belt areas like this one are Trump strongholds, with working-class voters intensely opposed to free trade, and Rubio and Cruz will have a difficult time cutting into the billionaire businessman’s support. If Collins, a prized congressional recruit, feels comfortable backing Trump in a somewhat-competitive seat (it voted 55 percent for Romney in 2012), expect more endorsements from lawmakers if Trump continues to rack up delegates. It’s also a sign that “blue” states with blue-collar constituencies, particularly New York, will be favorable to Trump on the back end of the primary calendar.
4. If Bush never ran for the presidency, would Donald Trump even be a formidable candidate? It’s possible that the candidate running as the antithesis of Trump may have done more to boost the New Yorker’s candidacy than anyone else. Consider: a) Bush’s entrance in the race prevented any other mainstream alternatives from getting attention for months; b) his Right to Rise super PAC nuked the most-electable alternative in Rubio with millions in attack ads while spending much less against Trump; c) his candidacy defined the two poles of the Republican Party, and gave Trump plenty of fodder to showcase himself as aggressively anti-Bush and become an antiestablishment icon; d) Trump may not even have gotten in the race if it weren’t for Bush creating the prospect of a dynastic coronation.
What’s amazing is that Bush didn’t have enough self-awareness to understand that the party, after three straight antiestablishment elections for Republicans, would not have the appetite for another Bush in office. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, that misjudgment will have wide-ranging ramifications for his party in the years to come.