Last night Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio did what they had to do in taking down Trump. Don’t fool yourself. That was fun and great theater but it will not change the underlying dynamic of the race. Donald Trump is going to roll up a series of wins on Super Tuesday. The only measurable impact that it might have is in locking in a win for Ted Cruz in Texas. In the big winner-take-all states that will vote in March, Trump’s lead is too insurmountable for a singular event to move the polls by the 20 or so points it will take to bump Trump out of the lead. We can laugh all we want at Chris Christie’s endorsement but that endorsement will make it easy for a lot of Republicans in the upper MidWest and Northeast to vote for Trump. The overwhelmingly most likely outcome is that Trump ends March with a delegate count that will make it impossible to beat him.
There is an outside possibility, however, that he may be denied enough delegates to elect him on the first ballot and if he doesn’t win on the first ballot then we’re off to the races. This, quite honestly, borders on “hope as a strategy” but it is about all that is left for either Rubio or Cruz.
As Rubio scrambles for support ahead of Super Tuesday, Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s top adviser, used a Power Point presentation and took questions from attendees to lay out the two courses that Rubio’s quest for the GOP nomination could take in the coming months, two people present told CNN, speaking anonymously to share details from a private meeting.
The meeting comes as Rubio is trying to lock up the support of establishment Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump and Cruz. The Rubio campaign needs to convince donors and GOP power brokers that it has a true path to victory. Trump is heading into Super Tuesday as the undisputed GOP front-runner, having won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and Rubio has not yet won a state.
Sullivan has acknowledged in the past that a brokered convention might be hypothetically possible, but Wednesday’s comments are a concrete indication that the campaign is preparing for such an outcome.
“One is somebody — Trump or Rubio — wins enough primaries to sew up the nomination in advance of the convention,” one attendee said. “The other is that nobody does, and the two candidates go to the convention.”
A couple of days ago, I posted on why it was a profoundly stupid move for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to withdraw from the race. The name of their game is not “stop Trump”, it is “win the presidency.” Winning, ultimately is an act of ego, and while defeat can lead to victory, quitting leads to quiet anonymity.
The best example of how this reasoning plays out in practice is the 1976 GOP primary. If Ronald Reagan had been playing “stop Carter”, and let’s be serious for a moment, if you lived through Carter’s presidency as an adult you are asking yourself how it would be humanly possible for Trump to be worse, he would have gotten behind Ford early on so the party was unified. Reagan didn’t. And he didn’t drop out. He fought to the convention and fought at the convention. And when he lost, the only thing anyone remembers about the 1976 campaign is Reagan’s concession speech. When 1980 was there, he was around to pick up the pieces.
The same applies for both Cruz and Rubio. Their political future is tied to staying in the race. If they quit, their political ambitions are at an end. Cruz can use his Senate seat to beat on President Trump and try again in 2020. Rubio will find a similar perch. But if they quit, they lose the ability to try again.
Right now there is zero evidence that Cruz leaving the race actually does anything but aid Trump and, contra Sullivan, if two candidates can make it to the convention, then so can three. If there is a contested convention and you aren’t in the race, well, it doesn’t help you very much. But the only possible way to create a contested convention both Rubio and Cruz have to see a way to win it, otherwise the best move for each man is to ensure a Trump nomination and run against the wreckage in 2020. This makes the way forward more difficult because it requires Rubio to actually win states, but unless he can win states he really shouldn’t be thinking about a convention strategy.
I think last night showed a model for how this type of convention can come about. If Cruz and Rubio ignore each other and hammer Trump there is a chance that between the two of them they can win enough delegates to prevent Trump from winning outright. This provides both men a way to win. In fact, the only guy who can’t win after the first ballot is Trump. Cruz can make a play for Trump’s delegates. His credentials as the most likely guy to set the place on fire, salt the earth, and pee on the the ashes are impeccable. If Trump can’t win, his delegates could settle for the next best thing. Rubio would see the GOP power structure firmly behind his effort. He could raid Cruz’s delegates as a “consensus” candidate and maybe take enough from Trump to win as well.
What Rubio’s adviser doesn’t admit is that none of this works unless Rubio and Cruz act in concert. The waters are sufficiently poisoned by Rubio’s “liar” attack on Cruz — which is sort of Goebbels like in many ways — that the odds of him carrying Cruz supporters in a two-man race with Trump approach zero. The strategy is a reach but it is the only thing that approaches a plan for avoiding nominating Trump.