The GOP South Carolina primary is today. Across the country, the Democratic Party is having their Nevada Caucus. Next weekend these will be flipped. Why the parties did that is beyond me, but there it is. What should we expect in South Carolina?
FiveThirtyEight.com has Trump at either a 77% or 82% chance for victory, depending on which model you prefer. In an environment so vehemently anti-establishment, I think the polls (as bad as they are in primaries and caucuses) are more predictive than endorsements, so I lean toward the higher side there. However, Trump’s lead has dropped in the past week and Rubio seems to have had a mini surge again so there’s still a chance for an upset.
The RCP average as of this writing looks like this:
- Trump – 31.8%
- Rubio – 18.8%
- Cruz – 18.5%
- Bush – 10.7%
- Kasich – 9.0%
- Carson – 6.8%
If the polls are right then Trump should be cruising to another double digit (or nearly so) victory. Meanwhile, Rubio and Cruz are battling it out for second and third while Bush and Kasich fight over fourth and fifth. Let’s look at the more likely scenarios given these poll numbers and see what happens.
Trump’s Best Case Scenarios
The best case scenario for Trump is Trump/Cruz/Bush/Rubio/Kasich/Carson. If Bush somehow managed to pull out a third it would serve to keep both him and Rubio in the race, continuing to split the establishment lane vote. Kasich probably won’t quit just yet no matter what happens tonight, so this would be ideal for Trump.
It’s not going to happen, though. Given the poll numbers above, this is a long shot. Bush would have to show a major surge somewhere with Rubio tanking, and the momentum just really seems to be going the other way.
The best case likely scenario is Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Bush/Kasich. Rubio’s surge duds out. Cruz keeps enough momentum to stay fired up and keep propelling him forward while still hitting a hard ceiling that prevents him from actually winning. Also, I think Trump’s best case scenario is for the final one-on-one death match to be against Cruz.
But unless Bush pulls out the third – or a surprisingly strong fourth – odds are looking good that he’s out tonight. That’s less than ideal for Trump, as it helps Rubio consolidate the establishment vote. Even so, the machine politics of South Carolina is more or less ideal territory for Rubio. If he can’t pull out the win there it’s hard to see him pulling it out elsewhere.
Trump’s Worst Case Scenarios
Rubio/Cruz/Trump would be devastating. That’s pretty unlikely, though.
Rubio/Trump/Cruz or Cruz/Rubio/Trump would also be plenty bad, though. These scenarios are also unlikely, but FiveThirtyEight gives Rubio and Cruz each an 11% chance of pulling it out in the polls-plus model. Cruz carries a slight edge in the polls-only model. If this happens, it throws my entire wargaming scenario out the door. Trump can win with 30% of the vote. But to do so, he has to actually win.
Rubio’s Best Case Scenarios
The best case scenario for Rubio is Rubio/Trump/Cruz. This definitely blunts Trump’s front runner status, and establishes Rubio as one of the three candidates who has actually won a primary. The race automatically becomes a three way race at this point, and the Kasich and Bush donors flock to Rubio.
One or two of the polls this week hint that this just might happen… but it seems pretty unlikely. His last minute surge would have to be huge. Trump has a big lead. Also, Iowa proved that Cruz has a pretty effective ground game and you can count on him to bring it to South Carolina. South Carolina’s machine politics are ideal for Rubio… but the conservative evangelicals in the electorate are ideal for Cruz. Don’t count on Rubio squeezing out a win.
His best case likely scenario is Trump/Rubio/Cruz/Kasich/Bush – with Rubio being a strong second and Bush being a weak fifth. That achieves almost all of the same goals as above. Bush is forced out of the race and Rubio gets his donors. Kasich probably stays in a bit longer, until he realizes that all his donors have flocked to Rubio, too. Rubio consolidates the establishment lane, just not quite as quickly as above.
He has decent odds here. But again, Cruz’s ground game could prove a spoiler.
Rubio’s Worst Case Scenarios
Trump/Cruz/Bush/Rubio would be pretty bad. It’s about the only thing that could keep Bush in the race, and Bush in the race is the worst possible thing for Rubio. Odds are really low for this one.
His more likely worst case scenario is Trump/Cruz/Rubio, and there’s a strong chance on that one.
Cruz’s Best Case Scenarios
Cruz’s best case looks something like Cruz/Trump/Bush/Rubio. Rubio and Bush continue to split the establishment lane vote and Cruz solidifies the idea that he’s the only one who can actually beat Trump. If he pulls it off, this race is completely changed. He won’t, though. He’s shown basically no momentum in the polls and the gap is too big.
His best case likely scenario is actually the same as Trump’s best likely scenario: Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Bush/Kasich. The small difference is that Trump would like to have a big lead whereas Cruz would like Trump’s lead to be small. Cruz reaps all the same benefits as Trump for keeping the establishment lane split, just not to the same degree. This is what his camp is hoping for tonight.
Cruz’s Worst Case Scenario
Trump/Rubio/Bush/Cruz would be utterly devastating but it’s unlikely to actually happen. Again, Bush just doesn’t have the momentum here – and while Cruz doesn’t either, he also doesn’t seem to be losing ground.
More likely is Trump/Rubio/Cruz. That’s still a rough night for Cruz, as it seems to cement the narrative that his support has hit a ceiling.
Bush’s Best Case Scenario
Bush has to beat Rubio to keep his campaign alive. It’s unlikely to happen for reasons already discussed. RIP Jeb!
Bush’s Worst Case Scenario
Dead last might actually happen. But anything that doesn’t involve beating Rubio is probably a campaign killer for Bush.
Kasich’s Best Case Scenario
Kasich would like to beat Rubio, too, but he’s probably far more realistic about it and understands that it won’t happen. Beating Bush is his best likely scenario for tonight.
Kasich’s Worst Case Scenario
Dead last might actually get him out of the campaign tonight. I think odds are good that he’ll still beat out Carson, though, and limp along for one or two more contests.
Carson’s Best Case Scenario
The best Carson can hope for tonight is “not last.” He’s unlikely to get it. He’s a dead man walking and will probably be out of the race in another week no matter what.
Carson’s Worst Case Scenario
The opposite of his beast: last. Given his public statements, I don’t think it would end his campaign tonight. But it should.
I won’t put voter percentages out because it’s too volatile, but my feeling is that the RCP average is probably going to be the final order. Rubio’s got the momentum to beat out Cruz – but not Trump – and Bush, Kasich and Carson just aren’t budging that much in the polls.
We’ll find out in about ten hours or so.