In Oklahoma, a mid-November Sooner Poll found the outsiders taking 65 percent, with Trump, Cruz, and Carson each meeting the state’s 15 percent threshold. Rubio does, too, barely, with 16 percent, but he doesn’t have much upside potential since Bush, Kasich, and Christie register only 3 percent combined.
In South Carolina, another early state, the RCP average of two polls conducted in mid-January found Trump leading the field with 36 percent, 24 points ahead of Rubio, who leads the establishment candidates. Even if Rubio were to claim all of Bush’s, Kasich’s, and Christie’s supporters, he’d still trail Trump by 9 points. Making matters worse for Rubio, he has lost 8 points to Trump since mid-December. And South Carolina is a winner-take-all state, so all of the insiders there are likely to be shut out of the delegate hunt.
These four states illustrate the difficult road ahead for the insiders in the lead-up to Super Tuesday on March 15. If the race unfolds as polls suggest, the outsiders will trounce the insiders in state after state, racking up huge delegate leads and building up powerful momentum. Early wins by an establishment candidate might change the dynamic, but RCP averages of January polls in the early states show the insiders trailing far behind Trump and Cruz in Iowa and show Trump holding commanding leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
As the field winnows, the GOP establishment is likely to coalesce behind one of the insiders, but it’s unclear when that will occur. Instead of one insider emerging from the pack in New Hampshire, the race among them is tightening. As of late January, only five points separate Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich in RCP’s average of polls. Rubio’s 10-point surge from last fall has faded, and he has now fallen behind Kasich for the lead among the insiders in the Granite State; meanwhile, Bush and Christie remain within striking distance. None of the establishment candidates is likely to leave the field as long as they have a shot in the state. And since half of all New Hampshire primary voters make up their minds in the final week, they all think they have a shot.
The expected shutout in South Carolina will come 11 days after New Hampshire. In the SEC Primary, delegates will be chosen in six winners-take-most Southern states, as well as in the conservative states of Alaska, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming. And in the week following the SEC Primary, another six conservative states—Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Idaho, and Mississippi—will hold primaries, three of which have high qualifying thresholds that the insiders will almost undoubtedly all struggle to meet.
Establishment candidates still standing on March 14 will likely be on the ropes. On March 15, the primary schedule shifts to more moderate states that are friendlier to the insiders. But by then, almost half of the national convention delegates, and more than 90 percent of the delegates required to nominate, will have already been chosen.