Tomorrow, Republicans in South Carolina and Democrats in Nevada will be the third batch of voters to weigh in on the races for the 2016 presidential nominations. (And a few days later, Republicans in Nevada and Democrats in South Carolina will be the fourth). I realize I’ve been neglecting the Democratic primary here at BurkaBlog, but I’ll continue to do so until next week, because that party has less at stake Saturday than the Republicans do: Bernie Sanders may win, or Hillary Clinton may win; neither outcome would have a dispositive impact on either’s ability to eventually clinch the nomination.
The same is true on the Republican side. Donald Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but he has yet to exceed 40 percent support in any national poll, thus making it possible to argue that at least 60 percent of likely Republican voters have consistently expressed their support for nominating someone else. Whether this silent super-majority can eventually make itself heard depends on the further winnowing of the field. As I wrote last week, the results of the New Hampshire primary had ominous implications for the GOP establishment’s ability to settle on an alternative to Trump or Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucus and is clearly the candidate currently in second place.
The prevailing wisdom is that the alternative with the most at stake tomorrow is Jeb Bush. More specifically, there’s a sense that if he can’t manage a strong third-place finish, at least—despite all his advantages at the outset of the race, a strong performance in the most recent Republican debate, and being joined by his brother, former president George W. Bush, on the trail—that it’s time to pack it in.
My own view is that the stakes should be highest for Marco Rubio. In the run-up to the Iowa caucus, sources in his camp made it known to journalists that he would slingshot himself to the front of the pack with a “3-2-1” strategy: Third place in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. The candidate himself has publicly denied that he ever had any such strategy, which may help explain why he’s persevered despite a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, and why none of his supporters seem particularly pessimistic about the fact that he’s polling in third place in South Carolina, with about half as much support as Trump.
Nothing, however, explains why Rubio’s supporters, in concert with so many observers in the mainstream media, are so mysteriously dismissive of suggestions that in order to win the nomination, he has to win a primary at some point, ideally more than one. Since I’m a simple country reporter rather than a sophisticated campaign operative, it’s possible that I’m failing to discern some elegant subterranean strategy on the part of the Florida senator. But since I’m a simple country reporter, here’s how I see it: for Rubio to finish second or third in South Carolina will keep him in the running for the nomination, though not yet within striking distance. And at this point in the campaign, in a state where he’s backed by influential supporters like Nikki Haley, the popular governor, it doesn’t seem overly ambitious to suggest that Rubio should be able to finish in second place. Nor does it seem overly harsh to say that a strong third, like the one he posted in Iowa, should no longer be heralded as a victory.