A week ago, the Republican establishment thought it had found a savior. Sen. Marco Rubio, fresh from his third-place finish in Iowa, had momentum and was doing well in general-election polls. Mainstream Republicans were ready to coalesce behind him. The prospect of having to nominate Sen. Ted Cruz or Donald Trump—who finished first and second in Iowa, respectively—seemed to be receding.
New Hampshire dashed these hopes. Trump won big, and Rubio fell to fifth place. The Florida senator trailed two other mainstream candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio even lost to Cruz, who came in third despite investing only $500,000 in an inhospitable state. That result, combined with the terrain ahead, spells big trouble for the GOP. Polls in South Carolina, which votes next on Feb. 20, make a strong case that Trump and Cruz will finish first and second, shutting out Rubio and Bush again. The Trump-Cruz stranglehold on the nomination is tightening.
In the past month, three public surveys have examined the race in South Carolina. All three were taken between Jan. 15 and Jan. 23: a CBS News/YouGov survey, a Marist poll for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and an OpinionSavvy poll for the Augusta Chronicle. In all three polls, Trump led by a wide margin, and Cruz came in second. The average result was 36 percent for Trump, 20 percent for Cruz, 13 percent for Rubio, and 10 percent for Bush. Kasich barely registered at 2 percent. The Chronicle poll tested a scenario similar to where we are now: a five-man field of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and Ben Carson. Given those options, 32 percent of South Carolina Republicans chose Trump, 18 percent chose Cruz, 13 percent chose Bush, and 11 percent chose Rubio.
If you’re a Republican who dreads a Trump or Cruz nomination, that’s only the beginning of the bad news. Let’s start with a constituency that wasn’t much of a factor in New Hampshire: evangelicals. In the New Hampshire Republican exit polls, Cruz won the votes of 23 percent of white evangelicals. That wasn’t as good as Trump’s 27 percent, but it handily beat Rubio’s 13 percent, Bush’s 11 percent, and Kasich’s 11 percent. What held Cruz back was that in New Hampshire, white evangelicals comprised only 23 percent of the Republican vote.
In the South, that will change. The NBC poll found that white evangelicals comprised 51 percent of South Carolina’s Republican electorate. Cruz did just as well among them as he did in New Hampshire, winning 24 percent of their votes, compared with Rubio’s 12 percent and Bush’s 8 percent. Kasich scored a zero. In the CBS poll, the numbers were even better for Cruz: 65 percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina identified themselves as evangelical, and 26 percent of them supported Cruz, thrashing Rubio’s 10 percent, Bush’s 9 percent, and Kasich’s 1 percent. In short, Cruz proved on Tuesday that he can rack up double-digit margins over Bush, Rubio, and Kasich among a constituency that’s going to represent more than one-half of the Republican vote on Feb. 20.
Cruz also proved he can win big on the right. In New Hampshire, he did much better among very conservative voters, winning 23 percent of their votes, than he did among somewhat conservative voters, winning only 9 percent of their votes. That discrepancy hurt him because in New Hampshire the number of Republican voters who called themselves somewhat conservative was 50 percent higher than the number who called themselves very conservative.
In South Carolina, the balance could be quite different. In the Chronicle survey, the share of Republican voters who called themselves very conservative matched the share who called themselves somewhat conservative: 35 percent. Cruz trounced his mainstream opponents among very conservative voters, winning 29 percent of their votes, compared with 9 percent apiece for Bush and Rubio. In the CBS poll, which used slightly different ideological categories, Cruz beat Rubio and Bush among conservatives (22 percent to Rubio’s 10 percent and Bush’s 6 percent), and he walloped them among very conservative voters (35 percent to Rubio’s 10 percent and Bush’s 9 percent). Again, Kasich barely registered.
As the primaries move south, Cruz is more in tune with the Republican electorate than Bush, Rubio, and Kasich are. The CBS poll, for instance, asked South Carolina Republicans whether certain candidates would be too extreme, too moderate, or about right for them. Cruz outscored both Trump and Rubio on this measure: 63 percent said he was about right, while only 53 percent said the same of Rubio and only 50 percent said the same of Trump. Thirty-six percent said Rubio was too moderate. Only 16 percent said the same about Cruz.
In New Hampshire, Rubio pitched himself as the universal second choice, the natural repository for voters who had soured on or lost faith in other candidates. Exit polls validated his claim. When Republican voters were asked which candidates would satisfy them if nominated, Rubio outscored his opponents: He satisfied 57 percent of voters, while Trump satisfied only 50 percent and Cruz satisfied only 37 percent. But that appeal wasn’t enough to boost Rubio above Cruz, much less above Trump. And in South Carolina, Rubio can’t make the same argument, because Cruz, not Rubio, is the natural repository.
The CBS poll asked South Carolina Republicans which candidates they could consider supporting. Cruz led the field: 60 percent were willing to vote for him, while 40 percent weren’t. Forty-three percent said they wouldn’t consider Rubio, 44 percent ruled out Carson, 52 percent ruled out Trump, 68 percent ruled out Bush, and 81 percent ruled out Kasich. In the NBC poll, Cruz was easily the top second choice of Trump supporters, winning 35 percent of their votes, compared with Rubio’s 13 percent and Bush’s 11 percent. Cruz was also the top second choice of Rubio voters, drawing 26 percent of their votes, compared with Trump’s 18 percent and Bush’s 10 percent. Rubio often says he’s the candidate best able to unite the party. In South Carolina, that’s just not true.
New Hampshire could have made things a lot easier for the establishment. If Rubio had done well, or had at least beaten Bush, donors and voters might have abandoned Bush and coalesced around Rubio. The NBC poll shows that this would have helped Rubio significantly: Among Bush’s voters in South Carolina, 22 percent said their second choice was Rubio. Only 16 percent said their second choice was Cruz, and other candidates—Trump, Kasich, and Chris Christie—stood to inherit only 11 percent of Bush’s voters apiece. But with Bush and Kasich still in the race, Rubio is hard pressed to gain ground on Cruz.
Rubio has other problems, too. In the CBS poll, 70 percent of South Carolina Republicans said Trump was consistent in what he stood for. Sixty-eight percent said the same of Cruz. Only 54 percent said this was true of Rubio. And when they were asked whether Rubio “understands how you and people like you feel right now,” only 65 percent said he did. Trump and Cruz outscored him on that question, earning affirmative answers from 77 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
If Trump and Cruz finish first and second in South Carolina, that will be the third straight contest in which they’ve outpolled Rubio and Bush. Donors and party leaders, desperate to stop a Trump or Cruz nomination, will scramble for an alternative. But the list of alternatives will narrow in the cruelest way. There will be one candidate who can stop Trump, and another who can stop Cruz. Their names, respectively, will be Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.