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Rubio's Anti-Cruz Path to the Nomination

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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National Review’s Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson report a potentially important development: The emergence of an Anybody-But-Cruz-(Except-Trump) movement from the soon-to-be ashes of the Iowa campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. It would seem that some social conservatives, including a few currently supporting the last two Iowa winners, consider Senator Ted Cruz a “phony opportunist" -- and would rather see Senator Marco Rubio do well if their own candidates don’t have an unexpected late surge.

This suggests that reporting indicating that Cruz has wrapped up the support of Iowa Christian conservative leaders may have overstated the strength of his hold on that large faction of the Republican vote.

It’s worth looking at the numbers, however. Huckabee and Santorum combined have a whopping 2.8 percent of the Iowa vote in the latest HuffPollster estimate. Even if that support transferred to Rubio, he’d move up from a distant third to a not-quite-so-distant third. At the moment, he’s about 16 percentage points behind Trump, and 18 behind Cruz. And as long as Huckabee and Santorum remain active candidates, they’ll probably keep most of that support anyway.

The real question, then, is whether the Anybody But Cruz folks have any significant sway not only among current Huckabee and Santorum supporters, but within the important Iowa Christian conservative networks that backed those two politicians in 2008 and 2012. If they do have influence, they might be able to also pick off some votes now headed toward Ben Carson (7.7 percent in HuffPollster’s Iowa estimate), Cruz and perhaps even some of the other candidates.

The big goal for Rubio in the early states is to become one of the two or three candidates to survive Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, presumably along with Trump and/or Cruz. As long as he’s able to defeat everyone else in Iowa and New Hampshire, he probably will achieve that goal. What’s more, the best way to finish better than Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich in New Hampshire would be to be a perceived “winner” in Iowa, which could happen if he finished a strong third, with the others far behind.

Right now, Rubio, Christie, Bush, Kasich and Carly Fiorina combine for about 44 percent in New Hampshire polling; winning two-thirds of that vote would (based on current polls) put any of them in the overall New Hampshire lead. So far, however, that vote is scattered, with Rubio getting just 14.1 percent in the Granite State (second to Trump’s 26.2 percent). It’s easy to see a big burst of positive publicity for one of them coming out of Iowa reallocating those votes very quickly.

Which is why Rubio wants to maintain a solid separation between himself and the rest of the pack in Iowa -- and why even a few percentage points could be important. Media reactions aren’t all that predictable, but it sure seems likely that a solid 20-percent, third-place finish (or better) could make Rubio an Iowa “winner,” and highly visible Republicans who support Rubio could amplify that message in the neutral and Republican-aligned media. On the other hand, if Rubio levels off and barely holds third place -- or does worse -- he’s likely to be ignored in the media in the ensuing week, and therefore probably would disappoint in New Hampshire.

So it’s easy to dismiss the little support Huckabee and Santorum have to transfer to anyone, but it’s also not hard to see how even a fairly small Anybody But Cruz movement among social conservatives could make a big difference.

  1. Of course, even better for Rubio would be if something sparks a significant surge, and as Nate Cohn noted sometimes relatively small news items start the ball rolling. I expect Cruz to win in Iowa, but certainly wouldn't rule out a Rubio (or Trump) victory. 

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:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net