Last week, after Donald Trump won the South Carolina Republican primary, I got into a heated argument with someone. He said he thought Trump would win the nomination and I vehemently disagreed. I read election news religiously, I majored in this stuff in college, I watch every new poll and development. Simply put, I argued the evidence wasn’t there for Trump to keep winning.

Well, I was wrong.

Everything changed on February 23rd. Yes, that’s when Trump won in Nevada. But it’s the way he won that has every politico & pundit scrambling to understand the monster they’ve unleashed.

Here’s why all the evidence says Trump is now the heavy favorite to actually win the nomination:

The case AGAINST Trump before 2/23

When Trump announced he was running last summer, everyone laughed. Remember his ‘Mexicans are rapists and drug-dealers’ comment? That was in his announcement speech!

But even when he started getting traction and polled around 20%, it could be explained away:

  • Early polls are notoriously bad because they usually represent awareness of a candidate more than support. A year ago, how many people had heard of Bernie Sanders? Similarly, if you were being polled and were asked about a bunch of unknown Republicans and Donald Trump, you might just go with the name you’ve heard of before.

  • Only half of the US population votes. And half of those vote Republican. So polls of “likely GOP voters” represent about 25% of the population. That means when Trump was polling at 20% nationwide, it represented 5% of the US population. And when you remember that 20% of the US population still believes Obama is a Muslim (really), Trump’s poll numbers don’t seem entirely crazy.

  • Trump’s favorability numbers were awful. They suggested a natural ceiling for his support.

  • Trump kept making controversial comments (Mexicans are rapists, McCain isn’t a war hero, ending birthright citizenship, banning all Muslims, lying about 9/11 celebrations, mocking a disabled reporter, Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, and so much more). At some point, something had to stick, right?

  • The entire party was against him. At the first debate, even the Fox News moderators tried to undermine him. And if nothing else, “The Party Decides” theory offered a viable argument for his downfall once the candidate pool winnowed.

In other words, Trump’s popularity was unexpected, but there was evidence to suggest it was limited. And when it came time for people to actually vote, he’d lose.

And at first, that happened. In Iowa, he underperformed compared to his polls and lost to Ted Cruz. Surely his reign was ended?

Except Trump bounced back. He got 1st in New Hampshire and 1st in South Carolina. But still, it could be explained away:

  • He was winning with pluralities, not majorities. He’d hit his natural ceiling of ~35% and would start losing as support consolidated behind 1 or 2 other candidates.

  • He continued to underperform compared to the most recent polls.

  • Generally, 50% of people decide who they’re supporting the last week before a primary vote. Of that group, folks were voting for anyone but Trump (he was only getting 18% of late-deciders, again significantly worse than his polls).

The case FOR Trump after 2/23

But in Nevada, Trump confounded every expectation and turned the conventional wisdom upside-down:

  • He actually overperformed against the polls. He was polling around 40%, but got 46% of the votes. And before you say that was because Jeb dropped out, note that Jeb was only polling at 1%(!).
  • Won in a low-turnout state. Before Nevada, it could be argued Trump was only winning in high-turnout states (by bringing in new voters). But Nevada had a decidedly low turnout and he still won.
  • Won in a caucus state. Caucuses have significantly lower turnout than primaries and generally bring out very committed partisans. In this election, that’s Cruz’s base. But Trump won nonetheless.
  • Won with Hispanic voters. Yes, the sourcing on this is thin, and Trump is still heavily underwater among Latino voters nationwide (80% unfavorable, at last check). However, the race right now is still being won in the media and this story got a lot of traction.
  • Won with evangelical voters. Trump got 4 in 10 Evangelical voters. Again, this was supposed to be Ted Cruz’s base.
  • Won with every other damn demographic group. Trump won very conservative voters, moderate voters, voters without a college education, voters with a post-graduate degree(!), and with just about every other group of voters out there. Stunning.
  • Has gone from winning pluralities (24% in Iowa, 35% in NH, 33% in SC) to nearly an outright majority (46% in NV). This may be the scariest development of all. If Trump starts getting over 50%, it’s all over. Even if everyone but Rubio dropped out, Trump could win a 1-on-1.

So Trump won Nevada convincingly. And he did it in a way that demonstrates he’s even stronger, amongst nearly every demographic, than anyone anticipated.

On top of that, the Republican primary calendar has 2 dates rapidly approaching that are hugely important:

  • 3/1, aka Super Tuesday, when 11 states vote. Right now, polls show Trump significantly ahead in 8 states and competitive in the others. He’s only significantly behind in Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas (but delegates are awarded proportionally, so even a strong 2nd-place showing will still net Trump a lot of delegates).

  • 3/15, when states are finally allowed to allocate delegates winner-take-all. The Republican National Committee designed the calendar this way because you usually have a presumptive nominee by this point and they wanted him or her to be able to quickly lock up enough delegates to make it official. Well, this year that’s Trump and he is killing it in Ohio (Kasich’s home state) and Florida (Rubio’s home state). There will be a strong push for those two to drop out if they don’t win their own state (especially Kasich, who has only been competitive in 1 state so far).

Vox has a very good article on how Trump could essentially lock up the nomination by 3/15. You should really go read it now.

But if you still don’t believe me, go look at the betting markets. People who actually have money on this have Trump at 77%, Rubio at 19%, Cruz at 2%, and Kasich at 2%.

Finally, in the most shocking development of all, Trump’s starting to get endorsements from real politicians. First, Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) endorsed him. Still, they’re kinda fringe guys. But on Friday, Trump dropped a bombshell when he got sitting NJ Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement. That possibly opened the floodgates, because he soon got former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s endorsement as well as one more sitting politician. If you don’t know who, I strongly urge you to read this fantastic NYT article all the way to the bottom for a real kick-in-the-pants.

Why Rubio probably can’t win anymore

Rubio is now clearly the only viable Trump competitor left. But it’s probably too late, especially because the other competitors don’t look like they’re going anywhere soon:

  • Rubio’s “robot” debate gaffe hurt him significantly in the New Hampshire primary, getting 5th place when he was poised to get 2nd (just a 5% difference!). Instead, he let Kasich win amongst “establishment” candidates, giving him a credible reason to stay in the race. And now all indications suggest Kasich won’t drop out before 3/15, until Ohio votes.

  • Rubio’s closest competition is still Ted Cruz. But unless Cruz loses Texas (highly unlikely, based on current polls), he will probably stay in the race for a while too. He’s always been the best-funded candidate after Bush and has the best ground organization of anyone.

  • And you’d think Ben Carson would have dropped out by now, but his campaign is running on a shoestring budget with minimal staff so he’s happily chugging along and picking off ~5% in each state. Last year, he even took a month off the campaign to go on a book tour (right when he topped Trump in the polls too!), so his campaign may be more about publicity than the presidency.

So while Rubio might be able to win a 1-on-1 with Trump today, it doesn’t look like he’ll have that chance anytime soon. And by March 15th, 60% of all delegates will have been allocated. Even if every other candidate drops out then, Rubio would need to win 2/3 of the remaining delegates to catch up to Trump.

What happens next

The way I see it, the race plays out in one of three ways:

  1. Rubio fights back.

    I drafted most of this blog post before Thursday’s debate, when Rubio and Cruz finally went on the attack against Trump (even Jeb, Trump’s most direct target all year, used barely any of his $100 million to fund ads against him). Rubio got the best of it and then followed it up the next day by taking the fight to Trump the only way left—fighting insults with insults. And dare I say, it might work? I was entranced by his new “stump speech,” mocking Trump’s tweets1 and behavior at the debate. It’s Trump’s shtick, but from a candidate with substantive policy proposals to go with it. As Stuart Stevens noted, it’s not too late to stop Trump and this just might be the way.

    But for the comeback to work, Rubio will have to do 2 more things: frame the race as solely Trump-vs-Rubio (hoping voters increasingly ignore Cruz), and perform better-than-expected on Super Tuesday. Rubio’s competitive in Minnesota and Virginia and if he can actually pull off the win in both, he will rewrite this race yet again.

  2. Trump wins the nomination and the party tries to undermine him.

    If Trump wins the nomination, the GOP will be fractured. Some will support him, figuring he’s better than Hillary, but many won’t. They’ll figure it’s better to focus on 2020, when Hillary would be trying to win a 4th consecutive term for the Democrats, a rarity for any party in modern politics. In fact, Mitch McConnell is already telling Senate Republicans up for re-election this year that it’s OK for them to run ads against Trump.

    And if Trump wins the nomination, I think there’s a very good chance some Republican will run as a sacrificial candidate, splitting the GOP vote and essentially throwing the election. The problem for the RNC is that all 16 of this year’s other candidates are barred by the “pledge” they created last year to force every candidate to support the eventual Republican nominee. They thought it would force Trump to get behind a real Republican nominee, but now all the other candidates are going to have to get behind Trump!

    My money on such a sacrificial candidate is Mitt Romney. He’s out of politics now and wouldn’t be messing up a chance at another race down the line by “defecting” from the official Republican ticket. In addition, having him on the ballot would help protect downballot candidates, giving Republican voters a chance to still vote the “party line,” but not for Trump.

  3. Trump wins the nomination and the party gets behind him.

    Republicans know floating a 3rd-party bid would give the White House to Democrats. And when they already have the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and 2/3 of all state legislatures, maybe they’d rather take an unpredictable Republican than a Democrat as POTUS.2

    If Trump gets the full backing of the national party, including fundraising and endorsements, voters will notice and perhaps get in line. And as a dovish Republican who says same-sex marriage is the law of the land & Planned Parenthood does a lot of good, he might even pick off some independent- to-liberal voters.

    Look, when the GOP race started, no one thought Donald Trump had a chance. If he wins the nomination and has the backing of the party, I’m not counting ANYTHING out of the realm of possibility any more.

Of course, this is all assuming we don’t get a brokered convention or Trump third-party bid. The way this election has gone, who knows what’s going to happen next!

  1. Call me crazy, but I think Trump posted those multiple misspelled tweets intentionally. Did you notice he left them up for hours, even after thousands of retweets? I think he knew he had an underwhelming debate performance and, as he always does, tried to shift the media narrative by doing or saying something crazy. He only deleted them and posted correctly-spelled versions after Rubio mocked them relentlessly (and CNN started showing a split-screen of Rubio’s speech and Trump’s tweets). ↩︎

  2. The fact that Republicans control every other branch of government is also a very good reason why they DON’T need to support Trump as their candidate. Here’s hoping! ↩︎