Wow, Marco Rubio’s had a terrible few days. He had a pretty bad night on Super Tuesday last week, but at least emerged as still the most likely candidate to stop Donald Trump. He’s not any more.
On Saturday, he finished a distant third in Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana, and fourth (last) in Maine. His morsel of good news came the next day from Puerto Rico, which gave him 74 per cent of the vote and all of its 23 delegates. But any comfort that result gave him was quickly extinguished.
Last night, he came third in Hawaii and Idaho – well behind Trump and Ted Cruz – and fourth in Michigan and Mississippi. He received less than 10 per cent of the votes cast across the four states, and won just a single delegate of the 150 on offer. According to the betting markets, Rubio’s chances of winning the nomination are down from around 15 per cent after Super Tuesday to just three per cent now.
By contrast, it’s been a pretty good week for Ted Cruz. In the days after Super Tuesday, he put in a relatively strong debate performance and saw Ben Carson – a rival for some of the conservatives and evangelicals on whom he relies for both votes and money – drop out of the race. On Saturday, he won by more than 20 percentage points in both Kansas and Maine, and came surprisingly close to Donald Trump in Louisiana and Kentucky. And last night, he won Idaho commandingly while finishing second to Trump in the other three contests.
In the eyes of both the media and the betting markets, Cruz is now Trump’s main rival for the nomination, and it’s easy to see why. He’s now beaten Trump on eight occassions, whereas Rubio has done so just twice (and Kasich never). He’s the only candidate with even close to Trump’s delegate haul so far: Cruz has 362 to Trump’s 463, while Rubio and Kasich are well behind on 154 and 54 respectively. Since Super Tuesday, Cruz has actually closed the gap ever so slightly, winning 128 delegates to Trump’s 126.
If Trump doesn’t make it to the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination, Cruz will have been a big part of the reason why. But helping to stop Trump is one thing; clinching the nomination himself is another. Cruz’s path to 1,237 delegates is very narrow: he needs 62 per cent of the remaining delegates on offer. To make matters worse, he’s unlikely to win any of the three largest states that give all their delegates to the winner (Florida, Ohio and New Jersey); without these, he’d need 73 per cent of the delegates available in the other contests.
For Cruz, then – as for anyone else not named Donald – his chances of being the Republican nominee hinge on there being a contested convention, and then on his being able to persuade a majority of delegates to back him to stop Trump. The problem is, many in the Republican elite loathe Cruz almost as much as they fear Trump. John McCain called him a “wacko bird” and Bob Dole labelled him “extreme” and warned that “there’ll be wholesale losses if he’s the nominee.” If there’s any other remotely viable option – Rubio, Kasich, even Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan – those elites will try to get them nominated over Trump or Cruz.
In the race for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton won two of the six states to vote over the last four days, while Bernie Sanders won four. Michigan, by far the largest state Sanders has won so far, was also the most surprising. The polls showed Clinton leading by around 20 points, but Sanders took 19,437 more votes to win by 1.7 points. But the narrow win only gave Sanders eight more of Michigan’s delegates than Clinton, due to the Democrats’ proportional system for allocating delegates. That didn’t come close to making up for his big loss in Mississippi, which gave Clinton 32 delegates to Sanders’ four. Clinton still holds a commanding lead overall, having won 58 per cent of pledged delegates so far to Sanders’ 42 per cent.
But Sanders beat expectations, and has the positive headlines to show for it. That could well boost his poll numbers in the next states to vote – Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio all go to the polls next Tuesday, with 691 delegates up for grabs between them. It also raises the possibility that Sanders will outperform the polls in some of those states as he did in Michigan, though he does trail Clinton by 29 points in Florida, 37 in Illinois, 14 in North Carolina and 20 in Ohio.
The problem for him? He’s continuing to significantly underperform (relative to where he’d need to be to have a shot at the nomination) in southern states, like Mississippi and Louisiana. FiveThirtyEight has a brilliant tracker showing how many delegates each candidate would need to win in each state – given how favorable it should be to them – to be on track for a majority. In the nine states Sanders has won so far, he’s netted 259 delegates: 11 delegates more than his targets. In the nine southern states he’s lost by big margins, he’s bagged 209: 85 fewer than his targets.
In other words, Sanders’ good performances – like his win last night in Michigan – haven’t been enough to outweigh his really bad ones – like his loss last night in Mississippi. That’s why Clinton won’t be too worried yet.