Of course, there is a chance that as one or more of the outsider candidates falters, their supporters will gravitate to Rubio or one of the other establishment figures. Or that the outsiders will fragment in support, allowing Rubio, the establishment favorite, to do what Mitt Romney did in 2012. But it is a bit more likely that the bulk of those voters will opt instead for another outsider.
The vast majority of scholars and pundits, including but not limited to those who confidently predicted multiple times over the past four months that Trump had peaked and would soon be out of the race, and who are now gleeful that he has dropped to second in the latest CBS/New York Times survey, assume Trump cannot possibly win a nomination. But consider that Trump’s supporters are far more set in their deep support for him than Carson supporters, who indicate that they are more flirtatious than romantic at this point. And consider that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Trump is now investing more in building an infrastructure in early primary and caucus states than most of his rivals.
That does not mean that Donald Trump is on course to win the Republican nomination. But as veteran and savvy GOP politico Steve Schmidt told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur, “Anybody who thinks Donald Trump cannot be the Republican nominee is smoking something.” If Trump falters or self-destructs, keep a close eye on Ted Cruz—well financed, inside and outside the campaign, and cleverly “drafting,” like a race-car driver, behind both Trump and Carson, waiting to surge to the lead if they both falter.
Now let’s talk about Rubio. He moves into a much stronger position if Jeb Bush’s evident disgust for a party process that now strongly favors the outsider insurgents, and his poor performance in debates and on the trail, lead him to follow Scott Walker and drop out. Then Rubio looks more like Mitt Romney in 2012, the acknowledged establishment favorite. But if Bush stays in—and why not, with so many candidates, so much uncertainty, and so long to go?—he will focus much of his firepower against his chief rival for the establishment crown, as he is doing now by calling Rubio the “Republican Obama.” My reaction to that was, “Hmm, a successful two-term president who enacted sweeping social policies via both legislation and executive action.” But, of course, most Republicans do not see it as a compliment.
For those who still see Rubio as, by far, the most likely nominee, consider the following scenario. Rubio finishes fourth or worse in Iowa; does not finish in the top three in New Hampshire; loses to Trump, Carson, or Cruz in South Carolina. Not much momentum for him at that point. Even a victory or second-place finish in the small Nevada caucuses would not help much. Then comes Super Tuesday, with a heavy concentration in the South, where the insurgent forces are especially strong. To be sure, there are some moderate states on Super Tuesday—Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota—but those are states where John Kasich and Jeb Bush are highly attractive. The next big opportunity for Rubio is March 15, when Florida joins Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Kasich, if he is still alive and well, would be the prohibitive favorite in his native Ohio. But one can easily imagine Bush and Rubio canceling each other out in their native Florida, perhaps even enabling a Trump or Cruz (who might take some of the Cuban-American vote from Rubio) to win a plurality victory.