My colleague, Dan McLaughlin, made an impassioned case for why Ted Cruz should drop out of the race if he doesn't run the table on Super Tuesday. The case is appealing if you are a Rubio supporter but starts to unravel when one looks at the facts. It seems to me that calling for Cruz to drop out before Rubio has won a single primary is more than a little premature. It also assumes that both men and ignores the fact neither man has an interest in dropping out of the race and they probably shouldn't.
Rubio Can't Win A Primary.
To date Marco Rubio has been unable to assemble a coalition that lets him win. His best finishes so far have been second over Ted Cruz by 0.2% in SC and second over Ted Cruz by 2.5% in Nevada. In neither case has he been closer than 10 points to Trump. In both his second place finishes, the state GOP power structure has been nearly unanimously in his corner. Either those State GOP organizations were ineffectual or Rubio is sufficiently weak that he has rendered their support nil. Neither possibility bodes well for his win-by-endorsement strategy. If we are to believe polls at all, the future is even more grim. Right now exactly zero of the polls show Rubio winning a state. What is more telling, is that he polls third in his home state, Florida. Allegedly, Rubio's strength is the Midwest. But the most recent Ohio poll shows Rubio a distant fourth while Cruz is within the margin of error of second place Kasich.
In short, Rubio's only possible strategy for winning any primary is a) Cruz getting out of the race, b) Cruz endorsing Rubio and campaigning for him, and c) the combination of his endorsement and campaigning actually convince his supporters to back Rubio. For reasons I will posit, a) makes no rational sense for Cruz unless he resigns from the Senate and from politics, while b) could happen, c) I think, is very unlikely. I know for a fact it would not get my vote.
Rubio Can't Win A Primary Against Trump.
Even if Cruz did bow out, there is no evidence that Rubio can hold his own against Trump. In fact, quite to the contrary, there is ample evidence that he can't generate the enthusiasm or react to changing events in the same way Trump can. Though he has shown he can make baseless and totally false attacks on par with the Master himself. Back in December, Dan McLaughlin pointed out how Trump operates. The obvious problem that Rubio has is when he gets outside his soundbites, he simply can't think on his feet. The way Chris Christie exposed his lack of flexibility in the New Hampshire debate will be repeated by Trump, by Clinton, and by the media:
Cruz is the only candidate in the field thus far that has demonstrated either the ability or the will to fight Trump and to win. Rubio, for the record, has not even tried.
A more likely outcome is that Rubio wilts in the spotlight and causes an even more rapid movement of non-movement-conservatives and the establishment to Trump.
Rubio Can't Beat Hillary Clinton.
Despite polling that shows him doing well against Clinton, I believe in the actual event Rubio will be beaten -- narrowly -- by Clinton for the same reason he can't win primaries. He simply is not a fighter. He won't fight Trump. He won't fight Cruz on issues. We know from past experience (Lazio vs Clinton, McCain vs Obama, Romney vs Obama) that when the Democrat candidate is a woman or minority the first line of defense you have to breach is "sexism and racism." The scurrilous personal attacks that Rubio has used against Cruz will simply not work if he uses them against Clinton and any other attack will get the "sexism" stink attached to it. Rubio simply doesn't have the spine to handle that. Both Trump and Cruz do, though in different ways.
Cruz Can Win Primaries But He Can't Win Enough To Beat Trump.
Where Rubio finishes a weak second, at best, in any state poll you want to look at. Cruz actually leads in some polls and is either second or a very close third in the remainder. This shows that Cruz is actually the strongest of the non-Trump candidates. If Rubio dropped out and all his votes arrogated to Cruz, he could but there is no evidence this will happen for the same reasons that Cruz dropping out brings all his votes to Rubio.
Why Would Either Drop Out, Or, the World Does Not End If Trump Is Nominated.
"Cause we're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.
Blake-- Glengarry Glen Ross
As a matter of tactics, neither Cruz nor Rubio are playing this to "stop Trump." They are in it to win because while pundits like the idea, "stopping Trump" gets neither man anything but the second-place finisher's set of steak knives and political oblivion as not only a loser but a quitter. Both Rubio and Cruz are ambitious with long political careers ahead of them. Neither will settle for a set of steak knives and neither want the label "quitter" nail-gunned to them in future races.
More to the point, no matter how many delegates Trump wins he doesn't have the nomination until after the convention and if something happens to Trump and you've suspended your campaign you are not in contention.
The Calculus: Trump Wins the Nomination. So what?
If both men stay in the race until the convention, the odds are that Trump will have amassed enough delegates to win on the first ballot. If he hasn't, or if he spontaneously combusts at some point, then the only players are guys with delegates. If either Cruz or Rubio have "suspended" their campaign, them become a very unlikely consensus candidate. They will have major speaking rolls at the convention. Then they can either help Trump win or sulk in their tents. I am willing to bet that neither sulks because Cruz could not survive not fighting Hillary tooth and nail and Rubio cannot survive not supporting what is fast becoming the GOP establishment's consensus candidate. Besides, being the guy who helped put Hillary Clinton in the White House is not going to help a political career.
The Calculus: Trump Beats Clinton. And If Not, So What?
For the record, I think in a Trump vs Hillary match, Trump wins for the same reason he has prevailed thus far I think even Democrats are coming to that conclusion. From the perspective of Cruz or Rubio, Trump winning is a plus because a Trump in 2020 is probably orders of magnitude weaker than a Clinton in 2020. Even so, in 2020, should Clinton be president, she will be 73. Given her track record we can anticipate a administration so divisive and overtly criminal that we will pine for the days of Barack Obama.
The Calculus: Trump Is Jesse Ventura Writ Large.
Given Trump's business record and his personal life we can anticipate a Trump presidency will be a spell-binding catastrophe of Biblical proportions. The best we can hope for is a weak, ego driven presidency that will spawn primary challenges in 2020. I think Trump will discover that he liked running for president and "being" president more that the actual work (much like the incumbent). He would be 73 when he stands for re-election and he might elect only run once if he's not "yugely" popular. If you dropped out of the race in 2016 it is hard to make the case that you deserve a rematch or that you should even be in the race to try to pick up the pieces.
The Calculus: A Failed Trump Presidency Will Not Attach To the GOP.
There is a meme developing that if Trump wins his failure as president will destroy the GOP. I think this is booshwa. Trump is not really a Republican as virtually everyone in an out of the GOP has noted. He has assembled a coalition of people who are embittered by the status quo, probably more at the economic status quo than the political one, and is turning out previously disengaged voters. I would suspect that a President Trump will face as much resistance from the GOP in Congress as he will from the Democrats. Regardless, both Cruz and Rubio ran against Trump and there is no reason to think that an outlier candidate like Trump will have any real impact on the GOP. Unlike a George W. Bush, whose failures did attach to the GOP, a Trump's failures, I believe, will be his own.
The Calculus: Rubio and Cruz Will Be Two Term Presidents. That Matters.
Unlike Trump, who I think will make Jesse Ventura look like Pericles, it is a solid bet that if either Rubio or Cruz make it to the White House they will follow the pattern no serving for two terms. If either Rubio or Cruz wish to run for the White House again, waiting to 2024 is a non-starter. Who knows what will happen or who will appear on the scene to make that impossible. Both men can carry forth what they have brought to this campaign in 2020. By 2024, no one will know anyone who supported them in 2016. Both could run a primary challenge against the other in 2020 but that will have the look of sour grapes if the incumbent is successful at all.
Neither Rubio nor Cruz are in this to "stop Trump." "Stop Trump" hurts their political careers to the sole benefit of their rival. From a game theory perspective, assuming you believe that winning the presidency is the objective of the campaigns and not burning themselves down to help someone they probably, by this point, neither trust nor respect. Trump winning the nomination is a non-issue. Ted Cruz will still have a Senate seat to rebuild and get ready for 2020. One has to believe that we've not seen the last of Rubio either and he will also re-emerge in 2020. The only way either man loses is to quit before the convention. Unfortunately, for the "stop Trump" people this means that Trump will probably be the nominee.