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Cruz vs. Rubio Is A Long Way Off

The Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio clash is coming! After Tuesday night’s debate, Jamie Weinstein at The Daily Caller wrote an article titled “Cruz And Rubio Win Debate And Foreshadow A Coming Clash.” Sahil Kapur of Bloomberg went with “Debate Offers Hints of a Coming Cruz-Rubio Showdown.” Indeed, the collective “wisdom” here at FiveThirtyEight agrees: Rubio and Cruz are the first and second most likely candidates to win the nomination. We’re bullish on Rubio. We’re bullish on Cruz.

But just because an outcome is the most likely doesn’t mean that it’s likely. The favorite heading into the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament each year typically has about a 25 percent chance of winning it all. Kentucky, which went undefeated in the regular season last year, entered the tournament with a 41 percent chance. Usually, the odds are that the favorite won’t win. (And Kentucky didn’t.)

At this stage, the Republican race for the presidential nomination remains relatively wide open.


Securing the support of party bigwigs is important — whether as a signal to voters or as a barometer of the political winds — and both Cruz and Rubio have ticked up according to this metric. Rubio has jumped into a tie for second place in our endorsement tracker over the past few weeks.1 He has secured the backing of three senators and two members of the House so far this month. Cruz was the only other Republican candidate during this time period to pick up an endorsement from a governor, U.S. senator or U.S. representative. Still, neither Cruz nor Rubio is winning the endorsement race.

Among Republicans, Jeb Bush still has the most endorsement points. Yes, most of those endorsements came earlier in the year, but despite all of their “momentum,” Cruz and Rubio haven’t overtaken the one-time front-runner. Rubio has only 3 percent of all the possible endorsement points available. Cruz has 1 percent.

Most Republican governors and members of Congress (80 percent of endorsement points) remain on the sideline. To put that in perspective, Hillary Clinton already has 71 percent of all possible Democratic endorsement points. Moreover, since 1980, only two previous eventual nominees in non-incumbent primaries had fewer endorsement points at this stage than Rubio. None had fewer endorsement points than Cruz. The Republican establishment may be inching toward Rubio, but it’s still a long way from being in either Cruz’s or Rubio’s corner.

It may happen; it just hasn’t happened yet.


At the end of September, Cruz had more cash on hand than any other Republican, with $13.8 million. Rubio was third with $11 million. The PACs and super PACs backing their bids were second and third, respectively, in cash on hand through the middle of the year, with $37.5 million for Cruz and $16.5 million for Rubio.

Rubio and Cruz are doing well, but neither is blowing away the rest of the field. Seven other Republicans had at least $1 million on hand. Three of them (Jeb Bush, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina) had more than $5 million on hand. Meanwhile, through the middle of this year, Bush’s PACs and super PACs had nearly double the war chest of Cruz and Rubio’s outside groups combined.

Cruz and Rubio have plenty of money, but they don’t have an advantage over the other candidates that suggests they’re destined to outlast everyone.

It may happen; it just hasn’t happened yet.


Perhaps nothing better bolsters the belief that Cruz and Rubio have moved up in the ranks than recent movement in the polls. Rubio and Cruz are now in third and fourth place in Iowa and national polls. Rubio is also third in New Hampshire. Both have fairly high net favorability ratings.

But their support in horse-race polls is still fairly minimal. Both trail Carson and Donald Trump in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally. Neither is above 13 percent in any of these contests, according to the RealClearPolitics average. In all three contests, there are at least seven candidates — besides Trump and Carson — within 11 percentage points of Cruz and Rubio. Other candidates such as Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee in Iowa and Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina in New Hampshire remain quite popular with voters. Remember, Rick Santorum didn’t begin hitting the high single digits regularly in Iowa until December 2011, and he won the caucus a month later. There’s still plenty of time for a surge from many of the candidates.

Or, perhaps, Rubio and/or Cruz will start to consolidate support. Maybe Trump and Carson will falter or implode. Maybe Bush will drop out. And maybe most tea party and socially conservative voters will rally behind Cruz, while the more establishment Republicans buy in with Rubio.

It may happen; it just hasn’t happened yet.

Cruz and Rubio are in as strong a position as any of the candidates to win the nomination — Rubio especially. But the nomination process remains far too muddled to know what’s going to happen. This is a historically big field. GOP voters have a lot of viable candidates to choose from. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote Wednesday:

Rather than a contest with a frontrunner and others seeking to become the alternative, the race remains a series of smaller battles, with jockeying to emerge in one lane or another, in one early state or another.

The media (us included) may have solid suspicions about how it all will shake out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Check out Nate Silver’s take on Tuesday’s Republican debate.


  1. We use a weighted system that gives 10 points for endorsements from governors, 5 points for endorsements from U.S. senators and 1 point for endorsements from U.S. representatives.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.