After Super Tuesday, we should know with certainty if Donald Trump is unstoppable or if another candidate has a chance.
Whether Ted Cruz can stay in the race after Tuesday is the single most important factor in determining whether Trump can win.
Cruz must not only win his home state of Texas, he must win at least three, and preferably five, of the other Southern states voting that day. If he can’t win Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, he can’t win anywhere outside Texas and his candidacy is doomed. Losing Georgia, Virginia, and Oklahoma is also a very bad sign for him.
If he can’t win states that are only slightly less influenced by religious conservatives, he is highly unlikely to win any state in the Midwest where evangelicals are even smaller shares of the GOP electorate. And if he can’t win there, he will be a politically dead man walking should he continue.
Even if Cruz drops out, however, it doesn’t mean Rubio can take down Trump. The little data we have suggests Cruz’s voters will break to Rubio, but perhaps not by a large enough margin.
How well does Marco Rubio need to do Tuesday? Any win would show that Trump can lose; look at Georgia, Virginia and Minnesota as the states likeliest for Rubio to triumph in. But unlike Cruz, Rubio doesn’t need to win any states to continue because his core constituency, the “somewhat conservative” Republican, comprises a larger share of the vote in states that vote on March 8 and 15.
March 1 for Rubio was always going to be a gantlet which he needed to survive rather than a night to celebrate.
Rubio’s survival quotient can be measured in two terms, delegates and second-place finishes. Under RNC rules, all the states voting on Tuesday must award their delegates proportionally unless one man takes at least 50 percent of the vote. Rubio will be doing all right if he can garner 100 delegates out of the 600-plus at stake. He will be doing very well if he can break the 150 mark, and he would probably be running close to even with Trump if he can break 200.
Second-place finishes in the South are also key because of the Cruz factor: If Rubio is finishing second in Southern states where Cruz should be strong, it will reinforce the narrative that Cruz needs to drop out of the race to stop Trump.
Rubio is running second, ahead of Cruz, in recent polls in Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, is tied for second with Trump in Arkansas, and is a very close third in Oklahoma. If Rubio is able to finish second in five of the six Southern states outside of Texas, he will have killed Cruz’s candidacy.
The third thing to watch for is how well Trump does. His blowout win in the Nevada caucus has raised expectations for him. If he wins states by anything less than 10 points, the media will interpret that as Trump losing ground. If he loses any state at all other than Texas, that will compound the narrative. Trump must win states by double digit margins to continue to send the message to voters that he is “inevitable.”
The race will not be over regardless of what happens Tuesday night. Over three-fourths of the states will still have yet to vote, and a narrower field (expect Ben Carson to drop out after Tuesday, especially if his rival for the evangelical vote and personal nemesis, Cruz, drops out first) will give later races more decisive impact. But Super Tuesday will still matter a lot, and we could know on March 2 whether anyone has a chance of stopping The Donald.
Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.