Donald Trump wins in Nevada, drawing 45.9 percent of the Republican electorate. He defeated both Marco Rubio (23.9 percent) and Ted Cruz (21.4 percent) by more than 20 percentage points, and in doing so raised his supposed “ceiling” of GOP support by another 10 percentage points.
We’re all astonished by it. Even Trump admits to being astonished by how quickly and easily it has come to him. And I can’t help but imagine the panicked reaction of the Republican establishment as they watch it all unravel. Surely, surely the wiser among them realize their own responsibility for what is happening to their Grand Old Party. Surely they know that this is their own plan gone awry.
They were the ones who decided decades ago that their grip on power could best be maintained by appealing to the worst instincts of its electorate. They were the ones who decided that with his name, race and background, Barack Obama offered the perfect opportunity for taking that strategy up several notches, to raise the emotional ante to a fevered pitch.
Thanks to them, Obama wasn’t allowed to be just another mainstream Democratic president, an honorable American whose ideas and policies were mistaken, at least as viewed from the GOP perspective. No. He was a foreign-born usurper who meant to “fundamentally transform” America in nefarious ways; he would destroy the country as we have known it, crumble the Constitution into a wad of paper to be tossed in the trash, and turn white people into the most persecuted majority group in the land unless patriotic, right-thinking Republicans could rally to stop him.
Yet stop him they could not. Maybe they can deny him a Supreme Court nominee in his last 11 months in office, but ObamaCare still stands, he succeeded in raising taxes on the wealthy, we have a treaty with Iran that has ended its nuclear program and an economy that was losing 800,000 jobs a month when he took office now boasts an unemployment rate below 5 percent and by far the longest sustained job growth in the nation’s history.
To top it all off, in 2012 the American people re-elected Obama to the White House, making him the first president since Ike Eisenhower to win two terms in office by drawing at least 51 percent of the vote in each election. Today, Gallup puts Obama’s job approval rating at 48 percent, comparable to that of Ronald Reagan at the same point in his second term (50 percent) and far better than George W. Bush (32 percent). Rasmussen puts it at 51 percent, which ain’t bad for a Kenyan anti-colonialist.
So of course the GOP electorate is angry. Of course it’s frustrated and fearful. The party leadership and its propaganda machine sold them a powerful narrative of a beloved nation under siege from within, teetering on the brink of collapse. But they neglected to give the story the happy ending that it requires. They needed a hero, someone to ride in, vanquish the villain and save the day, and the likes of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and the rest of the GOP elite proved to be spectacularly ill-cast for such a role.
Enter Trump, a man whose head expands enough to fill any vacuum.
Trump is going to do well — “very well, very well indeed” — in next Tuesday’s voting. He’s up by 10 to 12 points here in Georgia; in Massachusetts he’s up 34 points. In Alabama he’s up 20, up six in Virginia, in Vermont up 15. In Texas, he trails local boy Ted Cruz by just 8 points, and Cruz’s trajectory is down, not up.¹
After that comes Michigan on March 8, where Trump is up by 20. There’s no firewall in any of those states, only dry tinder to feed the flames.
The real day of decision is now March 15, the date of the Florida primary. Under GOP rules, delegates in all primaries prior to that date will have been awarded proportionately. Florida will be the first major state that awards all 99 of its delegates to the outright winner of its primary. It is also the home state of Rubio, the sole remaining candidate with any hope of halting Trump, the apple-cheeked boy upon whom the establishment is placing its remaining hopes.
The most recent polling in Florida is more than a month old, but it shows Trump up 26 points over Rubio. Yes, that polling was conducted when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was still in the race. But even if you play the what-if game that has become the last solace of anti-Trump Republicans, the math remains brutal: Even if you shift all of Bush’s Florida support into Rubio’s column, Trump still has a lead of 17 points in the Sunshine State.
And he doesn’t need to win by 17 points. If he defeats Rubio in Florida by a single vote, Rubio loses any credibility as a viable alternative and the nomination is decided. Florida, the land of the hanging chad, will be the last stand of the GOP establishment.
¹Here’s how perfectly the stars are aligning for Trump: He doesn’t really want to win in Texas, or at least he shouldn’t. A loss there would suit his strategy perfectly. If he were to defeat Cruz in Texas, he would basically strip the Cruz campaign of its argument for existence and push him out of the race. And Trump wants to keep Cruz around as long as possible to siphon off votes and media attention, and to give him a convenient target for abuse.