The Corner

Politics & Policy

Rubio and Cruz Gambled Against Trump and Came Up Snake Eyes

Trump speaks to reporters in Las Vegas, Nev. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

I know this will come as a shock to many NRO readers, but a state built on glitz and legalized casino gambling, and one where one of the candidates has his name on the tallest residential building, isn’t necessarily the state that is likely to be an electoral stronghold for family-values Republicans or traditional conservatives—or frankly anyone not named Donald J. Trump.

In fact, more than almost any other state, even New Hampshire, which is similarly populated with middle-class and working-class whites without college degrees, Nevada, with its glitz, glamor, and anything-goes morality, a state in which brash and over-the-top are celebrated as virtues, found its ideal candidate in Donald Trump, who is also, as fate would have it, one of the state of Nevada’s major employers.

And Trump had another command performance, winning an easy victory in the Silver State. Trump’s opponents can’t dismiss this sort of dominant win. Trump has a devoted core of rabid fans and will be very, very difficult to beat for the nomination if his opponents and the GOP as a whole don’t commit to taking him on in a frontal assault—and it remains to be seen if they have a real interest in doing so. Trump took advantage of voter anger—the vast majority said they were looking for an outsider and Trump won these voters overwhelmingly — to romp to an overwhelming victory. Trump also dominated among the 20 percent of voters (the highest number in any state so far) who listed immigration as their most important issue.

But Trump’s victory cannot simply be chalked up to demographics—exit polls had Trump winning Hispanics as well, and while these can be fairly inaccurate when dealing with relatively small sample sizes, it is certainly a rebuke to narratives that Cruz and Rubio would trounce him with this group. Yes, Trump’s appeal is certainly in no small part due to his persona, but if the GOP establishment isn’t looking at everything the party is doing after being run over yet again by the Trump train, then they are definitely in deep denial. Trump is winning victory after victory despite not having been endorsed by a single sitting GOP governor or member of Congress.  

It’s also worth noting that Nevada is the fourth straight state in which the GOP smashed its turnout records. It seems likely that whatever one might say about Trump, his presence on the ballot, along with that of Cruz and Rubio, who also have passionate fans and detractors, has galvanized a huge number of voters to participate in the political process. In an election season that has largely provided bad news for conservatives, that fact provides a significant glimmer of hope.

Rubio won a tight battle with Cruz for second place, burnishing his claim as the establishment’s Trump alternative, but except to the truest of true believers his result could hardly inspire confidence that this is a candidate on his way to the nomination. He had the endorsement of Nevada’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as well as the endorsement of the state’s GOP senator, Dean Heller, two of Nevada’s three GOP congressmen (the third didn’t endorse) and the majority leader of the Nevada assembly. He benefited also from a raft of national establishment endorsements before the caucus, while his principal non-Trump opponent, Ted Cruz, suffered through a bad news cycle on the eve of the caucus when he had to fire his spokesperson for circulating a video that made false claims about Rubio. Rubio was briefly a Mormon as a child (a valuable background for reaching Mormon caucus-goers who make up one-quarter of the total voters in Nevada) and formerly lived in Las Vegas, where he still has family.

Given all of those factors going for him, Rubio’s showing should be terrifying to clear-eyed members of the establishment. If they think a hundred additional congressional endorsements will put Rubio over the top, given current trends, Nevada was Exhibit A that they are fooling themselves.

The news wasn’t much better for Ted Cruz. On the positive side, Cruz definitely continued to demonstrate this is a three-man race. Rubio was not able to put any real distance between himself and Cruz, despite the many advantages listed above. But at the same time, he trails Trump badly, and needs to change that dynamic quickly if he wants to be the nominee. Now the race moves to the Super Tuesday states that have long been at the core of Cruz’s strategy. It is in these states that the difference between Cruz’s organization and his opponents will be most stark. Every candidate was fairly well organized for the first four states, but from day one, Cruz pinned his hopes, and his money and organization, on Super Tuesday. With the establishment having largely thrown in behind Rubio, Cruz will simply need to have a strong performance on March 1 if he wants to challenge Trump for the nomination.

As for Carson and Kasich, the Nevada results confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that they are just taking up space at this point, and it is hard to see any rational reason for either candidate to stay in the race.  For Carson, a vanity candidacy as book tour may have its own internal logic, but he is rapidly diminishing the goodwill he built up with GOP voters. Regarding Kasich, his continued presence in the race is even more inexplicable. As a veteran pol, he must realize that he has no path to the nomination. Future nominees do not take low single-digit totals in three of the first four states while being flat broke, running against three strong competitors. Yet, he soldiers on, much to Trump’s delight.

It should be said, that neither Cruz nor Rubio are running a bad campaign. In fact, throughout the campaign, both have showed themselves to be highly-skilled politicians who, despite their relative inexperience, outlasted the deepest and arguably most-talented GOP field in years if not decades. Both are drawing the sort of vote totals and enthusiasm that, absent Trump, would mark them a winner. Each received about as many votes in Nevada as Romney did in 2012 when he romped to victory. Both have incredibly bright futures. But right now neither has an answer for Trump, and as long as they turn their fire primarily on each other, neither is likely to generate one. In fact, in one of politics’ delicious ironies, Cruz’s continued presence in the race is probably the only hope the GOP establishment has right now of having some sort of contested convention scenario in which a non-Trump nominee emerges, given that Trump is the second-choice of a large fraction of Cruz voters.

Cruz and Rubio need to stop playing prisoners’-dilemma games and take a hard look in the mirror. Neither one is going to get the one-on-one matchup with Trump that they understandably want, barring some hugely unexpected change in the race’s dynamics. Their only path to victory can come from, jointly or separately, taking on Trump and reducing his popularity enough that he comes back to the field.

In Nevada, Cruz and Rubio gambled against Trump, and came up snake eyes. They are going to need to play a different game with better odds on Super Tuesday if either wants to stop Trump’s march to the GOP nomination.

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