I’ve long lost count of the number of Republican debates we’ve seen in this extraordinary cycle. They have all been entertaining – in ways never seen before in politics, closer to a celebrity cage fight than measured debate – and in my view, catastrophic for both the image and electoral prospects of the party. Tonight’s five-man affair in Texas may finally produce a decisive result.
In just five days, 14 states will vote on Super Tuesday. Unless something dramatic happens very soon, Donald Trump will emerge with a commanding delegate lead. He has won the last three contests by a massive margin and Tuesday’s one-sided Nevada result sent an ominous signal to the rest. Trump won by 22% and earned more votes than the entire GOP field in the same contest four years ago.
The market response was similarly overwhelming. From being rated around 53% going into the caucuses, Trump is now rated a 70% chance at odds of 1.43 for the nomination. At 4.1 (24%), he is also at his lowest mark yet for the presidency. The only other Republican below [100.0] for the presidency is 8.2 chance Marco Rubio.
Ever since he declared, most pundits have been sceptical about Trump’s plausibility as a candidate. He has vastly more opponents within his own party than any candidate ever, and has the worst nationwide favourability numbers of any candidate. Yet, irrespective of what happens in November when the wider public are involved, Trump has a vast, loyal base among GOP primary voters. Unless the rest unite around a single candidate, he is unbeatable.
That does not appear very likely. Marco Rubio has emerged as clearly the best placed to unite the rest, but even in one of his target states, the Florida Senator failed to do so. Whereas he finished 22% behind Trump in Nevada, Rubio only beat the crisis-ridden Ted Cruz by 3%.
He needs Cruz, John Kasich and Ben Carson to all quit the race very soon. Yet there’s no reason why that should happen. Cruz may earn more delegates than Rubio on Super Tuesday, and remains favourite to win his home state of Texas.
Furthermore, there is nothing in Cruz’s history or profile to suggest he’ll quit. There is no love lost between him and Rubio and, at the relatively young age of 44, has an interest to playing the long game. To secure as many delegates and leverage as possible, establishing himself as the leader of pure, ‘movement Conservatives’ ahead of future battles.
With no anti-Trump coalition emerging in the immediate future, his opponents are reliant on a dramatic turn of events. A slip, a scandal or humiliating, gamechanging moment. Having spent the last six months killing each other rather than the race leader, perhaps this will be the first night where any of them land a meaningful blow on Trump.
Unlikely as that seems, they were given a talking point to exploit by the losing Republican candidate from 2012. Mitt Romney’s campaign was damaged by the slow-drip release of his tax returns.
Romney suggested last night that there might be something embarrassing in Trump’s returns – that he either wasn’t worth as much as claimed, or hasn’t given to veterans and charities on the scale he’s claimed. Soon we’ll know if this offers a glimmer of hope for his rivals, a long-term gift for the Democrats, or just another false dawn for the majority of Americans who do not want Trump anywhere near the White House.