So, what happens in South Carolina tomorrow?
The current polls show Trump way out in front, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) holding fast around 20 percent and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) experiencing a late surge, no doubt in part to his solid debate performance and endorsements from major South Carolina figures ranging from Governor Nikki Haley to Senator Tim Scott. The latest FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Trump at 32.6 percent, Cruz at 18.9 percent, Rubio at 17.4 percent, and Jeb Bush trailing badly at 10 percent. They forecast that Trump has an 83 percent chance to win the primary.
The RealClearPolitics poll average shows similar numbers: 31.8 percent for Trump, 18.3 percent for Cruz, 17.6 percent for Rubio. The three most recent polls show Rubio overtaking Cruz in the state; one poll from ARG shows even Ohio Governor John Kasich overtaking Cruz, an outlier result for certain.
All of this is a massive problem for those who oppose Trump. While a certain branch of conservatives will celebrate Rubio finally gaining momentum, it will come at the cost of what the field most badly needs -- winnowing. Cruz is unlikely to leave the race if he shows weak in South Carolina; the next few primaries favor Cruz over Rubio. Nevada will go for Trump if he does win in South Carolina, but then we get to Texas -- Cruz territory where the Texas Senator hopes to somehow receive a majority of the vote and turn the proportional representation state into a winner-take-all; we also get Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Alaska, all places Cruz likely runs second. Meanwhile, Rubio has no incentive to drop out – he could win Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia. Even John Kasich won’t drop out until we start to reach his home territory. Jeb! may finally give up the campaign ghost, but it will be too little too late.
A close finish for second place in South Carolina means nobody leaves. Just as importantly, Marco Rubio’s decision to cut up Cruz personally, suggesting that Cruz is a nefarious crook and brutal manipulator, means that Cruz will never drop out and endorse Rubio; Rubio obviously won’t do that for Cruz, either.
Which spells a Trump nomination.
The betting markets currently favor Trump; Rubio runs a distant second, followed by Cruz even further back.
So, whose fault is all of this? The frontloaded Republican primaries this year gave a serious incentive to candidates to stay in for too long, hoping for a miracle. There are also one too many big name candidates – Jeb! should have dumped out long ago, but stuck around thanks to the credibility of his last name – and one too many hot new up-and-comers. The field was simply too broad.
South Carolina could shock us; the polls could all be wrong. But even if Rubio sneaks into second place, there’s no reason for the field to consolidate, thanks to Rubio’s brutal savaging of the Cruz campaign – Cruz supporters now hate Rubio, Rubio supporters hate Cruz, and Donald Trump just bloviates his way to the nomination.