Playing the odds.

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Expect a Few More Surprises From Ted Cruz

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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The conventional wisdom now is that Ted Cruz has no chance to win the Republican nomination, but that he’ll fight on until the end anyway.

Both of those assumptions are jumping ahead of the facts.

Yes, his third-place showing in South Carolina, a state with demographics matching his strengths and one where he dumped considerable resources, was bad news for the Texas senator. He is now down to 2 percent in the Predictwise market assessing his nomination chances.

Yet he's one of five remaining candidates, and two of them, John Kasich and Ben Carson, are fringe efforts at this point. Cruz has plenty of money, and he’ll receive a fair amount of media attention ahead of Super Tuesday, which is March 1. At least six of the 12 states voting that day remain good battlegrounds for him: Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.

We have no new public polling since Saturday's election in South Carolina in those states, and few surveys altogether. Georgia? The last survey was in January. Alabama? The last poll was in August. Cruz was leading in a one-day poll in Arkansas taken between the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and posted a strong second in an Oklahoma survey around the same time. Obviously, we'll get some new numbers in the coming days but it's hard to extrapolate from what we have now.

Massachusetts would seem to be a bad state for Cruz, but with Kasich concentrating on Massachusetts and Vermont -- both March 1 states as well -- and possibly taking votes away from Marco Rubio, Cruz could defeat Rubio there, just as he (narrowly) did in New Hampshire.

If Cruz can manage to win several states, and beat Rubio everywhere, on Super Tuesday, maybe we’re down to Cruz vs. Trump, and Cruz could certainly win that.

No, this is hardly the most likely outcome, and he had a bad day on Monday -- he fired his spokesman after a campaign gaffe, and Rubio added a bunch of new endorsements. But it is better than the 1-in-50 chance the prediction markets are giving him.

On the other hand, perhaps Rubio’s late surge in South Carolina hints he’s on his way to running strong in Nevada on Tuesday and then everywhere on March 1. Pending any polling, this seems more likely.

If Cruz has a disappointing Super Tuesday, he’ll no longer have any plausible chance of winning the nomination. The best he can hope for would be to win enough delegates to produce a deadlocked convention.

Don’t be certain he would stay in, however. Yes, Cruz is famously disruptive, putting his own grandstanding ahead of the good of the party as a whole. That was the effect of his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Yet Cruz had plenty of party allies during that standoff, including members of the House who later became the House Freedom Caucus. He's no outsider. He’s a factional candidate of Republican radical conservatives, and his actions then could be read as efforts to differentiate himself from mainstream conservatives.

Staying in the presidential race with no chance to win wouldn’t help him to brand himself as the True Conservative. It would help Trump to win, and his remaining on the ballot would not serve to convince anyone that Rubio was a squish and a RINO.

Meanwhile, Cruz supporters who care about, say, Supreme Court nominations would have no reason to stick with him: Rubio will be reliable for Christian conservatives on policy, while Trump is a threat to them.

Perhaps Cruz would stubbornly soldier on anyway, especially if March 1 delivers a more mixed result. But other Republicans in the race dropped out as their prospects dimmed, despite predictions they would stay in longer. I’m skeptical that Cruz can resist those forces any better than they did.

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