March 1 Poll Watch: Episode 3 (Lone Star Surprise?)

February 24, 2016

I think we can all agree that Donald Trump had a big night in Nevada. I think we can all agree Ted Cruz is on the ropes. I think we can all agree Marco Rubio needs to win somewhere on March 1.

Regardless of what his campaign says, he can’t wait until Florida on March 15 to post his first victory. Beyond momentum and delegate issues, if he hasn’t won elsewhere first, there’s no reason to assume his home state voters will vault him over Trump, who consistently leads him there.

Over the next few days, we’ll take a full look at the various Super Tuesday states. Some are decent opportunities for Marco. He led the most (not very) recent poll in Minnesota. He’s competitive in Oklahoma. Georgia looks sort of interesting.

There are demographic reasons to think Virginia and Tennessee are in range. While there isn’t a single state where Rubio is a clear favorite, he’s in the running all over the map. If the Cruz voters who are anti-Trump and interested in electability ditch him for Rubio, you can build a case for a victory speech that actually celebrates victories.

One place that did not seem available was Texas. Until this morning, conventional wisdom and all data indicated Ted was a favorite at home, with Trump his most dangerous competition.

For a while, Cruz was more worried about running up the score at home to maximize delegate collection, while trying to make sure he won 4 or 5 other states to make this a true two-way race. Now he’s hanging on for dear life.

In a race with three top tier candidates and two appendages, a winning candidate is going to land above 30%. This is especially necessary if Cruz wants to pull enough of a delegate advantage to make this anything other than avoiding embarrassment.

In mid-January, a CBS/YouGov poll had Ted at 45%. Right on schedule. A more recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, taken between 2/12 and 2/19 has him at 37%. Wrong direction, but still ok.

The first poll had Trump at 30%, the second at 29%. As dangerous a competitor as The Donald is, his strength comes from the commitment level of his supporters, not his ability to add dramatically to them in the final days of a contest.

If we see Trump in the 30% range, it’s no longer safe to deduct a percentage based on his voters not showing up. Iowa is the outlier for carrying forward polling support now. 30% means 30%, perhaps even 32 to 33 percent. If Cruz can stay in the upper 30s, he’s safe.

I skipped a poll. In late January, KTVT-CBS11 took a survey. Cruz 30, Trump 25. A full 25 percent were undecided or supported someone now out of the race. If you apportion some of the undecided voters to Cruz and Trump, the results fall in line with the polls taken before and after.

In each case, there was a steep drop between Trump in second and Rubio in third. Through January, Marco’s best polling number was 12%. There was no reason to expect him to do well. Cruz was the home team senator. Trump is Trump. Jeb was the brother of a popular former governor.

This wasn’t on anybody’s list of potential Rubio wins. At most, you might have wondered if he could do as well in Texas as Cruz would do in Florida. While Marco never polled ahead of Ted in Texas, Cruz often had a small lead on Rubio in the Sunshine State.

Until this morning, all polls were completed prior to South Carolina voting. Until that point, Cruz seemed like a decently strong nomination contender, though one who would need to have a strong March 1.

Emerson College has joined the fray. Cruz 29, Trump 28.  This is the first time they’ve effectively tied since UT had them at 27-27 in early November. The poll was taken Sunday through Tuesday. After South Carolina, before the Nevada results.

There is no way last night’s results help Ted. Texas is a big state. They won’t reflexively support Cruz just because he’s their senator. In September and October, when his chances appeared limited, Ted polled at 14% and 16%. He trailed Trump in one poll, Trump and Carson in the other.

This is very similar to the pattern we’ve seen with Rubio and Jeb in Florida, and Kasich in Ohio. Not the time for Ted’s nomination chances to look like they’re falling apart. The good news is this is not a Trump state.

Nevada was a Trump state. Massachusetts is a Trump state. A Trump state is where he regularly leads the next two contestants combined. People are always arguing about how possible it is to piece together support of other candidates to conquer The Donald.

In Nevada it was a ridiculous argument. Trump was at 46%. There’s no way the other candidates could have merged into one without losing enough voters to get Trump a majority. He would have won the Silver State against any single competitor.

South Carolina was a little closer, but there was a big gap. You can argue Rubio would have made it very close one-on-one, but the numbers argue in favor of Trump. Same goes for New Hampshire against Kasich or whomever you would choose as an opponent.

Not Texas. As I argued above, he’s just another contender here. It is one of the places where there’s a ceiling on his support. When people argue he can’t get to 50% in a two-way race, this is an example they can give. Nevada is the counter-example.

If Trump is stuck around 30% and Cruz is around 30%, headed in the wrong direction, while Ben Carson (4%) and John Kasich (9%) remain on the periphery, what does that leave?

Marco Rubio. Twenty-five percent.

Rubio could actually win Texas. That changes the script considerably. We’re waiting on post-South Carolina SEC polls from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. In Georgia, two post-Palmetto polls had Trump in the low 30s, Rubio in the low 20s and Cruz a few points behind that.

If Marco finishes ahead of Ted in most of these states, and manages to win one or two, there is no question which senator is the Trump challenger. Cruz has some very loyal supporters and lots of ground organization in these states.

But there is a percentage of voters who are mostly ok with either Cruz or Rubio, against Trump, and willing to follow the most plausible path. If Rubio can siphon 5 to 7 percent from Cruz, he has a legitimate shot to defeat Ted in his home state, and finish well ahead of him across the board.

Other outcomes are still possible. Trump can run the table. Cruz could have a great debate while Rubio has a poor one, shifting Rubio’s swing voters to Cruz. We saw in New Hampshire how fickle Marco’s support is.

Make no mistake. Ted is on the ropes. He probably didn’t plan on spending the next week trying to salvage his home state.





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