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Trump Optimists And Trump Skeptics Are About To Go To War

If you think the arguments between the Republican candidates have been bad, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Pundits, reporters and political analysts are going to really have at it. Two competing theories about the Republican race are about to come to a head, and both of them can claim a victory of sorts after South Carolina.

The first theory is simple. It can be summarized in one word: Trump! The more detailed version would argue the following:

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So, um, isn’t it obvious that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee?

Not so, say the Trump skeptics. Their case is pretty simple also:

  • Trump is winning states, but he’s only getting about one-third of the vote.
  • Trump has a relatively low ceiling on his support.
  • Trump now has a chief rival: Florida senator Marco Rubio.

What did the Trump skeptics find to like about South Carolina? Quite a lot, actually. They’d point out that Trump faded down the stretch run, getting 32 percent of the vote after initially polling at about 36 percent after New Hampshire, because of his continuing struggles with late-deciding voters. They’d note that Trump’s numbers worsened from New Hampshire to South Carolina despite several candidates having dropped out. They’d say that Rubio, who went from 11 percent in South Carolina polls before Iowa2 to 22 percent of the vote on Saturday night, had a pretty good night. They’d also say that Rubio will be helped by Jeb Bush dropping out, even if it had already become clear that Rubio was the preferred choice of Republican Party “elites.”

“So what?” sayeth the Trump optimists. Second place means you’re a loser! There’s no guarantee that the other candidates will drop out any time soon. And as Trump himself has argued, it’s a mistake to assume that all of the support from Bush and other candidates will wind up in Rubio’s column. Some of it will go to Trump!

Indeed, other candidates remaining in the race are a big problem for Trump skeptics. Bush is gone, but John Kasich is still in, and he may hinder Rubio in states like Ohio. More importantly, Ted Cruz is still winning something like 20 percent of the Republican vote. Although Cruz’s delegate math doesn’t look good — his strongest states are those that allocate their delegates proportionally, whereas Rubio and Trump are variously strong in winner-take-all states — he’ll stay in the race through Super Tuesday and possibly for a lot longer.

Trump optimists’ other point is more of a straw man argument, however. The Trump skeptics aren’t presuming that Rubio will magically pick up all the support from Bush (and eventually, from Kasich and Cruz). They’re looking at polls that have consistently shown Rubio picking up more second-choice support than Trump does. In some polls, that’s enough for Rubio to tie or overtake Trump. In others it isn’t. But virtually all polls have the race getting closer as the field winnows. Likewise, almost all polls (both state polls and national polls) show Rubio with higher favorability ratings than Trump.

I should note that the Trump skeptics find the Trump optimists a bit exasperating on this point. (Why are you talking about yourself in the third person, Nate?) The idea that Trump has a ceiling — or to be more precise, will encounter a lot of upward resistance as he seeks to gain more support — is not some type of special pleading. Instead, it’s a point the Trump skeptics have raised from the very earliest stages of Trump’s campaign. And they’ve seen some evidence to validate it from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, along with recent polling.

A reasonable person might adjudicate the case as follows: Yes, if the Republican nomination becomes a two-man race between Trump and Rubio, it could be pretty close. But that might not happen, or it at least might not happen for a while, not until Trump is off to a pretty big head start in delegates. What happens in a three-way race between Trump, Rubio and Cruz is a little murky. This reasonable person would concede that Rubio had a chance. But who’s the favorite? Trump!

The Trump skeptics might bring up one last line of argument. They’d claim, perhaps more tentatively than they did before, that GOP elites still have some ability to influence the race. Maybe voters don’t care about what “the establishment” thinks, but individual Republican politicians can still have some influence — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement of Rubio very probably helped him, for instance. These elites have quite a bit of money to throw around, especially with Bush out. They have some more subtle advantages: They can pack a debate hall with Rubio supporters, for instance. Or they could try to rule by brute force: If the Republican race goes to a contested convention, which is not at all unimaginable, we’re suddenly back in the pre-1972, smoke-filled-rooms era, although probably with delegates vaping instead of puffing on cigars.

Betting markets, weighing all of this information, see the Republican race thusly: Trump at about 50 percent to win the nomination, Rubio at 40 percent, and the rest of the field at 10 percent. I might quibble here and there, but that seems like basically a sound assessment. Now, let’s get back to arguing on Twitter.


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Footnotes

  1. I’d argue that this is a strawman — pundits became terrified of predicting Trump’s demise as of November or so — but we’ll leave that aside for now. ^
  2. Unfortunately, there were no South Carolina polls conducted in the period between Iowa and New Hampshire. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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