Five Seats at the Final Table
There are five seats left at the Republican final table, with a total of 100 chips between them. Based on combining the results from Iowa and New Hampshire, and apportioning the chips of the dropouts according to the stated preferences of voters in the last Selzer poll, the remaining players sit down at the table with the following stakes:
Trump 33, Cruz 26, Rubio 25, Kasich and Bush with 8 apiece. The two governors are soon to be departed, and similarly dividing their chips between the three leaders would yield the following result: Trump 35, Rubio 35, Cruz 30. If Cruz were to drop out it would be Rubio 58, Trump 42. If Rubio drops out it would be Cruz 54, Trump 46.
For Republicans, then, the safe play would seem to be Rubio over Cruz. But there's a hitch. The easiest way for the Republicans to win in November is by winning the votes of Midwest working class whites who refused to vote for Romney. This article demonstrates how that's done. If you want to prove it to yourself, click on Bycoffe and Wasserman's nifty electoral college gadget at 538.com. This year these people are Trump voters, and their big issue is immigration. They won't vote for Rubio in the general because of his Gang of Eight bill. They won't vote for Hillary, just as they didn't vote for Obama. But if they stay at home they can deny the Republican a victory. There are enough of them who would vote for Cruz to win the election.
Ted Cruz isn't too extreme for the Republican electorate. On immigration, he's barely extreme enough. Against a strong Democrat, like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, this could be a problem. But against Hillary or Bernie, either of which would be another McGovern, he'll do just fine. Think of Hillary as an American Evita Peron, and of Bernie as a reincarnation of Hugo Chavez. We're not there, yet.
In the Washington Examiner Philip Klein makes the case that Cruz was a winner in New Hampshire, in the sense that it sets him up perfectly in South Carolina. He spent little time and less money in New Hampshire, and lowballed his chances there. Bush and his Pac spent $36 million, Rubio $15 million, Cruz $600,000. Coming in third was the best he could hope for, and he pulled it off. The attacks on Trump's Manhattan values, which worked in Iowa, were not replayed in secular New Hampshire. They'll play well with South Carolina's evangelicals and hard conservatives. A man who openly brags about his many adulteries with other men's wives will be received no better in Charleston than he was in Des Moines.
With his big win in New Hampshire Trump has proven that he must be taken seriously. Well-heeled Republicans across the country have taken notice, and Our Principles Pac is up and ready to receive their donations. Trump's gone from being a noisy buffoon to something far more troubling. The money will be there to put him down, and Trump opposition researchers work a claim that's rich with shiny bright nuggets. Republican donors have been content to give Trump a free ride, confident that he'll either somehow disqualify himself or that his voters will come to their senses. That confidence has to be shaken, and as a result the dollars will begin to flow.
When the seats at the final table are down to five, predicting a winner involves more than looking at who starts off with the most chips. How do they compare with each other in terms of the skills, endurance and tenacity that are needed to win the bracelet? Cruz hasn't made a mistake yet. A blown debate sank Rubio in New Hampshire, and skipping one in Iowa cost Trump. The Donald continues to endear himself to his fans by promising to "bomb the s--- out of ISIS", telling companies who resist his demand that they return jobs to the U.S. "they can f--- themselves", and calling Ted Cruz a pussy. If you're part of his cult you eat it up. For everyone else, it's disqualifying.
Deal the cards. Game on.
Fritz Pettyjohn was the Chairman of Reagan for President, Alaska in 1979-1980, is a Co-founder of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, and blogs daily at ReaganProject.com