Can Rubio and Cruz Afford the Fight?

Last week I wargamed the GOP primaries out through Super Tuesday. Things already weren’t looking good for anybody not named Trump. After this weekend’s vote in South Carolina, what’s changed? Conventional wisdom says that Rubio should be the big winner. But will he? There’s an honest question to be raised here: will Rubio have the funds to continue the fight? The same question applies to Cruz – although, as we’ll see in a minute, not to the same degree.

Candidates were required over the weekend to report their finances through the end of January. So we know what they had when the primaries actually started. What we don’t know yet is what they’ve spent and raised throughout February. So this analysis is necessarily a bit speculative.

First, the standing as of February 1:

Ted Cruz had $13.6 million cash on hand. That’s not bad. Marco Rubio had $5.1 million on hand – considerably less good. And Donald Trump had $1.6 million on hand – barely more than John Kasich’s $1.5 million. How does this effect the race?

We know that all of the candidates spent a lot more money in both January and February than they had been previously. As the actual voting neared, it was time to open the wallets. And the New Hampshire media market is particularly expensive. We also know that this problem is going to get worse. With Super Tuesday being a week out, the race has now gone national. Candidates can no longer pull a Kasich and just camp in one state. Eleven states vote next Tuesday – no candidate can be in all eleven at once. They’re going to have to make up for it with media presence.

Advertising is expensive. Advertising on a national level is really expensive. Will the candidates have the funds to do it? Looking at the mounting evidence, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that if your name isn’t Donald J. Trump, the answer is “no.”

The expectation for weeks has been that when Bush dropped out of the race his donors would migrate to Rubio. Various reports this weekend have been showing that’s not happening. Some of his donors have gone to Cruz. A few have actually gone to Rubio. Trump has even contacted a few. This is probably more strategic than monetary; Trump just wants to ensure that they don’t keep his rivals funded. But many, apparently, are holding tight anyway.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, although I didn’t predict it, I feel now that I should have predicted it. Deep pocketed donors didn’t get deep pockets by throwing money away. They’re very often deeply conservative – not in the political sense but in the fiscal sense. They won’t spend money unless they think they’re getting something for it.

In the case of Rubio and Cruz, it’s not at all clear that they’ll get something for it. Cruz has only an Iowa win under his belt and seems to be hitting a ceiling with voters. Meanwhile Rubio – supposedly the establishment’s new darling – has yet to put a notch on his win board anywhere. Donors are right to be skeptical.

Additionally, I’ve seen more than one report that Bush’s donors aren’t even sure that political spending has even accomplished anything this cycle. Given how much money Jeb spent per vote, they’re right to be skeptical here, too.

Jeb’s donors holding back from the other candidates is a serious blow – especially to Rubio, who would have seemed to be the natural beneficiary. Without the extra cash, can Cruz and Rubio compete nationally? Or will they run out of cash? And if these donors do finally open up their wallets will it be too late?

My suspicion is that we won’t find out the answer to that last question. Lack of funding combined with Trump’s current momentum will cause both Cruz and Rubio to stall out next Tuesday. And after that, the donors will be clamping their wallets closed. The odds for Cruz and Rubio will simply be too long for conservative donors. It’s very possible that they’ll both drop out much sooner than I’ve expected – possibly even as early as March 2nd – simply because the finances dry up.

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