GOP leader enters big week with large delegate advantage.
By James Irwin
It is Feb. 29. In most years, today wouldn’t exist. And in most years—all years except for this one, actually—Donald Trump hasn’t been running for president of the United States.
Typical logic, regarding the Republican race and daily planners, doesn’t apply at the moment. Jeb Bush dropped out nine days ago despite his supporters amassing a huge super PAC for his candidacy. Marco Rubio has practically all the endorsements and zero primary wins.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump continues to roll, posting comfortable victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada after finishing second in Iowa. He has 82 delegates, 65 more than his closest challenger.
Nobody predicted this, said Danny Hayes, assistant professor of political science at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
“Not only would I have said that you were crazy, I would have bet you a lot of money, and at this point I’d be living on the street,” he said of forecasting Trump’s early dominance. “I think most people involved in politics certainly didn’t see that Trump would be the frontrunner this far into the process. It’s shocking.”
A few storylines heading into Super Tuesday, when 12 Republican and 11 Democratic primary states will cast ballots:
Trump’s steady base
Support for Mr. Trump has not been as fleeting as it first appeared, Dr. Hayes said.
“There was speculation that the support he had in the polls wouldn’t translate to actual votes,” he said. “But his support is not ephemeral.”
The Republican Party, he added, has had a tough time figuring out how to stop him, partially because it has been unable to coalesce around a single candidate as the “anti-Trump.”
Now Sen. Rubio appears to be that person, Dr. Hayes said. It might not matter.
“The fact they haven’t been able to effectively coordinate around a candidate shows how flummoxed they are,” he said of the GOP.
The chaos is in sharp contrast to the Democratic primary, which has neatly reduced to two candidates. Dr. Hayes said Hillary Clinton, with her continued advantage among minority voters over Bernie Sanders and her huge win Saturday in South Carolina, is in a strong position heading into Super Tuesday.
The Republican field has been crowded throughout the race. Five candidates remain. The prevailing rationale has been that most Republican voters are not supporting Mr. Trump, and that there is room for someone to overtake him, Dr. Hayes said. Mr. Trump won New Hampshire with 35 percent of the popular vote, South Carolina with 32 percent and Nevada with 46 percent.
“That’s the dynamic going forward that will tell whether Trump is likely to ultimately win the nomination,” Dr. Hayes said. “Most Republican voters aren’t supporting Trump at this point. The question is: Is there a single candidate they would support?”
Eyes on Rubio
Sen. Rubio is likely the only candi date left who could meet that criteria, Dr. Hayes said. The next few weeks are going to be critical. They include Super Tuesday and March 15, when five states including Florida and Ohio hold their primaries. Can the Rubio campaign translate the money and endorsements coming its way into votes?
“He’s the one who is in the position to be the establishment candidate,” Dr. Hayes said. “The question is whether that has any pull this year. I don’t know the answer to that. Four months ago I would have said, ‘Of course, this is going to allow Rubio to stop Trump.’ Now I’m not so sure.”
He does not know what to expect from Sen. Rubio on Super Tuesday.
“I think it’s possible he could be second or third in a lot of these states and not win any of them,” Dr. Hayes said. “But I don’t know what that means for him because he’s still going to have the party’s support, I think. Who else are they going to turn to?”
States to watch
Tuesday might be more important for Ted Cruz than Sen. Rubio, Dr. Hayes said. His home state of Texas holds its primary that day, as do several states—Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas among them—with large evangelical populations.
“That’s Cruz’s base,” Dr. Hayes said. “If he can’t win the states with the largest share of evangelical voters, then it really undermines his path to the nomination. And he kind of has to win Texas. If Cruz doesn’t win Texas, it’s hard for him to continue to make a case.”
Still, he doesn’t see Sen. Cruz going anywhere. Ditto for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is looking to the March 8 Michigan primary as an opportunity to start a Midwest sprint at the nomination.
Even after Super Tuesday, only 698 of the 2,472 delegates will have been awarded. Both Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio believe they can beat Mr. Trump, Dr. Hayes said.
“The problem is, with both of them still in the race, it’s going to be hard for either of them to do so,” he said. “Still, there are a lot of delegates still out there.”
He believes Tuesday might be another strange night in what has been a counterintuitive Republican primary.
“One thing we can say for sure, which I never could have anticipated a few months ago,” he said. “After Tuesday, I think Donald Trump is still going to be around.”