Political campaigns are all about narratives—that is why every debate and primary has a bevy of spin doctors, vying to make their candidate’s narrative the memorable one. If current numbers hold for the Super Tuesday primaries, Donald Trump will have won around 234 delegates, about 25 more than Ted Cruz and almost 150 more than Marco Rubio. Here are the storylines that you are likely to hear tomorrow:
Donald Trump. Republicans like winners, and last night, Trump was the overwhelming winner. He crushed the competition in total delegates, and won all but three states. And most of his victories weren’t even close. Cruz and Rubio threw the kitchen sink at him at the last debate, but they couldn’t sink Teflon Don. He’s going the distance.
Ted Cruz. Trump may have won more delegates, but not by the margin he hoped. Cruz not only beat Trump by a sizable margin in Texas, but also beat him in Oklahoma and Alaska and showed that a conservative can still win this campaign. If Marco Rubio leaves this race, Cruz will become the frontrunner. He is clearly the strongest alternative to the man who would destroy the GOP.
Marco Rubio. After being pronounced dead after New Hampshire, Rubio went into the deep South—Trump and Cruz country—and did very well for himself. He got the monkey off his back by winning Minnesota and would’ve won the all-important battleground of Virginia if Kasich had not been in the race. He is not only a conservative alternative to Trump, but the most electable one as well.
John Kasich and Ben Carson. Kasich/Carson did quite well in defeat in such and such a state. (Of course, we know neither of them have a prayer—though they both make clear that they’re doing plenty of praying for all of us. Kasich is likely angling to spoil Rubio’s chances and be Trump’s VP candidate, and Carson is probably just enjoying the ride.)
The real story—as it tends to be—is more complex than what you’ll hear from the campaigns. Trump won handily against each of his individual competitors. He also won the vast majority of states. But he did not win as handily as many thought, and combined with the debate, his air of inevitability is punctured. He is still the clear favorite, however.
Cruz not only got a necessary win in his powerful home state of Texas, but won Oklahoma and Alaska as well and ran close to Trump in some other states. He also looked like a stronger alternative to Trump than Rubio. That is why the close-second to Trump in Virginia hurts. Rubio won his first state in Minnesota, but if he had won Virginia as well, the story wouldn’t be that he only received 90 delegates.
He did fairly well across the map, but suffered a significant setback by not reaching 20% in Alabama, Vermont, and most notably, Texas. If he had, he would’ve ended up with a similar number of delegates as Cruz. Instead, he got trounced in the delegate count, even by the low standards he set for himself for the “SEC primary.”
Looked at from a different angle, Super Tuesday could be viewed as a modest victory for the anti-Trump majority of the GOP. Trump’s opponents received about 90 more delegates than he did, and in many states, simply combining Cruz and Rubio’s numbers would easily trump Trump. Also, Trump vastly under-performed according to the most recent polls. He was pegged at 49% in the recent CNN poll, but got around 36%, compared with Rubio and Cruz’s combined total of close to 50%.
But playing such games has inherent risk. Many Kasich voters would likely go to Rubio and Carson voters would likely go to Cruz—but how many? When a candidate drops out, the voters could go anywhere, and some would inevitably go to Trump.
So what happens from here? Neither Rubio or Cruz—the key alternatives to Trump—have any reason to drop out. Both can make a clear claim to be the best alternative. Rubio’s make-or-break day comes on March 15th, when he must win his home state of Florida. And though they are dividing up anti-Trump voters, both Rubio and Cruz are still drawing significant numbers and keeping Trump from locking up the nomination.
The best play for each of them is to continue hammering away at Trump—in the debates, over the airwaves, and on the ground. Trump was likely hurt by the last debate. If Rubio and Cruz continue to hammer away at Trump’s anti-establishment persona and paint him as a moneyed DC insider who is deceptively working to exploit mainstream America, the tide may begin to turn.
Such an outcome is not probable, but certainly possible. The game continues.
(Update: It looks like game over for the Carson campaign.)