- - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Let’s recap the 2016 GOP nomination results so far, and then think through some outcomes of the South Carolina Republican primary to be held this Saturday.

I’ll assume the reader knows all the candidates by their last name alone.

Less than six months ago, the GOP had seventeen candidates. 

(1) Before Iowa (in some cases, long before): Jindal, Pataki, Graham, Perry, and Walker dropped out prior to the Iowa caucus.

(2) Iowa caucus results from February 1:

  1. Cruz 27.6
  2. Trump 24.3
  3. Rubio 23.1
  4. Carson 9.3
  5. Paul 4.5
  6. Bush 2.8
  7. Fiorina 1.9
  8. Kasich 1.9
  9. Huckabee 1.8
  10. Christie 1.8

(3) After Iowa: Santorum, Paul, and Huckabee dropped out.

(4) New Hampshire primary results from February 9:

  1. Trump 35.3
  2. Kasich 15.8
  3. Cruz 11.7
  4. Bush 11.0
  5. Rubio 10.6
  6. Christie 7.4
  7. Fiorina 4.1
  8. Carson 2.3

(5) After New Hampshire: Christie, Fiorina, and Gilmore dropped out.

(6) As of noon Wednesday, Real Clear Politics shows the following poll number averages in South Carolina, for the remaining candidates:

  1. Trump 35.0
  2. Cruz 17.8
  3. Rubio 16.0
  4. Bush 9.8
  5. Kasich 9.0
  6. Carson 6.0

What could happen in (and after) South Carolina

Pundits look at the polling numbers and dream about how to knock off Trump by coalescing candidates who appear to represent “lanes” of the GOP. 

For example, the idea is that the “establishment” lane of the GOP currently holds three candidates (Bush, Kasich, and Rubio) totaling 34.8%. Note that figure is still a tiny sliver shy of tying Trump. Plus, that makes an unwarranted assumption that none of the supporters of those three would choose Trump, Cruz, or Carson as their second choice.

But, if we assume that one of these three candidates can place at least third in South Carolina, and the other two do not, would the other two drop out of the race? I don’t think that would happen.

For the sake of the argument, let’s say that Marco Rubio does best of those three by placing third. Would that lead either Bush or Kasich to admit defeat and leave the race? Not a chance. Bush (and his PAC) still sit on a big pile of money and seem determined to spend it in a valiant fight against Trump’s assault on the Bush family honor. Or even, a not-so-valiant fight against Rubio.

And Kasich has pre-admitted he won’t do well in the Palmetto State—or even in any of the Southern states coming up in the next few weeks. He’s gearing up for better election results in Midwestern states. Which is to say, though he has no viable path to the nomination, he’s having the time of his life reminding the nation about GOP talking points from 2005.

So, in all likelihood, the establishment lane will hold three cars even after South Carolina.

If you’re Rubio, you have to be hoping for a strong second place showing—knocking the shine off Ted Cruz’s Southern state strategy.

But what about Cruz? What should he hope for Saturday?

First, if Cruz wins South Carolina outright—especially after the polls showed Trump up on him by double—then his path to the nomination opens wide. Whereas Cruz has been attacked for two months by both Trump and Rubio, these two men have mostly left one another alone for now. So if Cruz were to defeat them both, a powerful statement would be made.

And if that happened, then look for Trump to do something “yuge” and outside the historical playbook for a candidate. I predict that if Cruz wins South Carolina, and if exit polling shows that Evangelicals gave Cruz the victory, then Trump will pre-emptively announce his pick for Vice President. Ahead of the SEC contests, heavy as those states are in Evangelical voters, Trump will bring on an Evangelical VP to stump for him using a true native tongue to Evangelical-speak. But that’s only if he loses South Carolina because of Evangelicals.

Second, even if Cruz places second to Trump, he can still hope one of the non-Rubio candidates come in third place. That would kill Rubio momentum.

And have you seen the financial war chest of the Cruz campaign? He has the funds and the boots on the ground for a national campaign, all the way to Cleveland. In the end, Trump may defeat Cruz, but nobody else on the list will—especially not if Bush, Kasich, and Rubio all remain in the hunt.

Rubio will remain in the race for a long time because he has always talked about a national campaign that peaked late, not early. Of course, Rubio also talked about placing 3rd in Iowa, 2nd in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina.

But if Rubio places fourth, or worse, in South Carolina, then he would need a historic turnaround run to win the nomination. Nobody has ever won the nomination after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. And, South Carolina has voted for the eventual nominee in every contest since 1980, except for 2012 when it voted for Newt Gingrich, from its neighbor state of Georgia.

So, let me state what will be an absolute certainty coming out of South Carolina on Saturday. Don’t fault me for stating the obvious. Though this isn’t rocket science, I believe my 2-cents worth of armchair punditry might be helpful for gaining some perspective.

After South Carolina, at least three of the GOP candidates will be 0-3. And if Trump wins, four of the candidates will be 0-3.

Visualize what a post-S.C. scorecard looks like with a Trump win in the Palmetto state:

  1. Trump 2-1
  2. Cruz 1-2
  3. Bush 0-3
  4. Carson 0-3
  5. Kasich 0-3
  6. Rubio 0-3

I don’t earn a living giving political strategy to a candidate. But if I did, I can’t imagine advising my potentially 0-3 candidate to focus a minute of attack on anyone but Trump for the remainder of the week.

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