March 11, 2016
Not bad guys. The Ted and Marco show reached Florida last night, and they proved as effective a tag team on policy as they previously were attacking The Donald more harshly.
There is a catch or seven of course. They are not yet an official unity ticket. Rubio spent a postgame interview telling voters that even if they understandably like Ted Cruz or John Kasich, he’s the only anti-Trump option who can win Florida.
Cruz reminded voters during the debate that he has defeated Trump 8 times, far more than the others combined. If there are enough strategic voters out there, the message was clear. Rubio in Florida, Cruz in North Carolina and Missouri.
Kasich is not a part of this effort. He’s working on his own path. For anyone who is inclined to prefer his approach, resume, or delivery, it was a good night. Though he continued to get less screen time, the gap was smaller than usual.
He remains stuck in a place partway between a contender and afterthought. On March 16th, he’ll find himself one or the other. Yesterday was one final debate in purgatory.
The biggest catch is Trump. He’s still clearly ahead. No stumbles that would convince any loyalist to start looking elsewhere. Not much to make a Trump leaner think otherwise. If you’re a unity ticket fan, The Donald didn’t measure up to his opponents.
They went into policy detail. He didn’t. So? Some voters care about this, but not enough to ensure Trump stays safely well under 40% in most of the March 15 states. He hung in when Cruz and Rubio attacked him, doubled down on his positions, and proved it doesn’t require insults for Trump to do his thing.
Each candidate reinforced to their existing supporters and leaners why they are a good choice, why they are in fact credible opponents for Hillary Clinton. Overall, it was a great night for the GOP, in terms of immediate impressions at a minimum.
The press can talk about the civility. The individual candidates have re-framed their pitch for the home stretch before the Tuesday primaries. With all that, it’s going to come down to math.
Does Trump have 34 percent support or 38 percent? One of those makes him vulnerable in every state on Tuesday, the other means he could sweep. Whatever that number is did not shrink as a result of the debate. Any minor blip is covered over by the Ben Carson endorsement.
How do Florida voters feel about Marco Rubio? If they have the desire to help him avoid embarrassment, his debate performance gave them the needed justification. He was back to the Marco so many voters and pundits like on the debate stage. It doesn’t always carry to the next vote though.
Are other Republicans ready to throw in with Ted Cruz? He did well, and unlike some previous sessions, appeared ready to go toe-to-toe with Trump over the remainder of the nomination fight, particularly if Rubio winds up as an ace surrogate or presumptive VP choice.
Did Kasich do enough to become the consensus anti-Trump in Illinois, potentially giving him a big win to go along with Ohio and make him a true threat down the home stretch?
The debate wound up being the perfect conclusion to the first half of the primary process. By the time the March 15 votes are in, half of the states will have participated, more than half of the delegates allocated.
We’ll have a two, three, or four person fight depending on the outcome. Each candidate showed up ready, each performed well. They all made their best case.
And we still have no clue what this will lead to when the people of Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina and Florida tell us how many candidates will remain in the race on the morning of March 16.