Don't be so sure.

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Trump or Rubio: Now Place Your Bets

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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One version of the current thinking about the Republican presidential nomination is that things are moving perfectly for Donald Trump. He has three victories now and a close second in the four states that have voted. He’s ahead in polls in many states, and leading big in national polls. This hasn’t changed in months, and there’s no reason to expect it to change soon.

A contrasting view is that Marco Rubio is the candidate who is still set up nicely. He recovered from his disaster in New Hampshire to finish second (albeit a distant second) in South Carolina and Nevada, becoming the obvious challenger to Trump. He has finally won a large number of endorsements, putting him about even with John McCain in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004 as a late-breaking party choice.

And, this argument goes, Trump is unlikely to increase his support. If he can't, then outside of his strongest states (and Nevada was one) he is only barely competitive in what will soon be a three-candidate race and not at all competitive in a two-man race. 

To see the evidence for these two theories, look at recent state polls. The Trump triumphant view looks like this: In 16 polls covering 13 states released since the South Carolina primary, Trump leads in all but four surveys and three states. And the lead is 10 points or more in over half of those surveys. That's impressive. In addition, the top non-Trump candidate is sometimes Rubio, sometimes Ted Cruz, sometimes John Kasich -- splitting the votes. 

Now here's the evidence for the Rubio-rising view. In those 16 polls, Trump only reaches at least 40 percent of the vote in one (Massachusetts, another of his very strongest states). All but one of the others are below his national polling average of 37 percent, and most are below the 34 percent a candidate would need in a three-candidate contest. From this standpoint, Rubio has plenty of opportunity now that he has belatedly emerged as the chief non-Trump alternative.

I count at least six reasons Trump might have difficulty adding to his current vote totals:

1. He’s had saturation media coverage for months. Most voters still barely know who Rubio and Cruz and Kasich are. As the campaign moves from state to state, voters will learn new things about Rubio, and so far Republicans have generally liked what they saw in the Florida senator.

2. Trump’s favorability ratings among Republicans are unusually low for a Republican candidate. Yes, those can change. And they are high enough that if he wins the vote of everyone who doesn’t dislike him, it will be enough. But this suggests problems.

3. Polls asking about voters’ second choices have shown less support for Trump than for other candidates, especially Rubio.

4. In Iowa and South Carolina, Trump won a smaller percentage of the vote than state polls would have indicated. He matched the polls in New Hampshire, and finished a little ahead of them in Nevada. But Nevada wasn't polled enough to have a good estimate of what happened there. He also lost among late deciders in each of the four states so far. 

5. Insulting everyone who doesn't support him suggests it may be more difficult to pick up new voters.

6. Party-actor support for Rubio should generate good publicity for the senator, and in general Trump will find it harder to dominate the information environment as the campaign goes on. For voters, it will be Trump against Rubio and Cruz -- or just Rubio -- rather than Trump against several unknown candidates.

Overall, it isn't that Trump necessarily has a "ceiling." It's that Trump may already have won all the voters who were likely to support him, and that adding new support may prove increasingly difficult. 

Of course, none of these six factors may be definitive. In a three-candidate race, Trump may only need a small percentage of new voters, so even if Rubio and Cruz gobble up most of those who are undecided or who had supported candidates who dropped out, Trump could still prevail. 

In the limited polling we have in the Super Tuesday races, he's below 30 percent in several states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. And he's in the low 30s in Georgia, Oklahoma and Vermont. It's possible he'll win each of these contests as easily as he did in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

But he's going to have to pick up some voters who haven't appeared to be with him now to do it, and he hasn't shown he can do it so far.

  1. Trump does not lead everywhere, although many states have minimal polling so far, so it's hard to know for sure.  

  2. The same argument works for Ted Cruz instead of Rubio, though Rubio has several advantages making him a more likely finalist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net