Without Carson and Kasich, Trump would have lost Super-Tuesday and the following Saturday decisively

Now that Super-Tuesday is over, many are thinking: if only the anti-Trump vote were not divided. How serious the issue is can be seen in the Super-Tuesday results: Trump won three states by margins of only 2-3%, but Ben Carson’s average vote was 6.5% per state, and Kasich’s 8.5%. Neither had any chance of winning the nomination, but had either one dropped out before Super Tuesday, Trump’s 7 wins out of 11 would probably have been 7 losses out of 11. A good night for him would have been turned into a serious setback. It’s worth stressing the fact that Trump’s vote total was low enough to have brought him a major defeat. All that made the difference between his making good progress toward the nomination and being stalled was the vanity of two men who refused to face the reality that they had long since become irrelevant to the race.

The pattern repeated itself three days ago on Saturday. Then Trump and Cruz won 2 states each, but Trump’s wins in Louisiana and Kentucky were only by 3 and 4 points respectively. If only half of Kasich’s vote had gone to Cruz, Trump would have lost all four states. Kasich staying in made a potential disaster for Trump -- a four state sweep by Cruz -- into a tie. Trump is not running away with the nomination: it is being handed to him by narcissists so in love with themselves that they are blind to their own best interests, let alone the country’s. 

If Kasich stays in, pointlessly splitting the vote on winner-take-all day -- March 15 -- he could hand as many as 300 winner-take-all delegates to Trump, and that could clinch the nomination. That would be the height of irresponsibility by a man who evidently thinks that he has a right to indulge his fantasies whatever the damage to the party and country. If Trump wins with vote totals that show Kasich’s self-absorption to be the decisive factor, he will surely wake up from his delusions to find himself a leper within the party.

However, the most important focus of attention in the coming weeks is likely to be on the consolidation of the Cruz and Rubio votes, but therein lies a special kind of conundrum. For what is involved here is not just one issue of vote splitting, but two, and the problem is that each interferes with the other. The more obvious voting fault line is the divide between pro-Trump and anti-Trump votes. But there is another divide based on immigration, amnesty, and party leadership issues. Cruz shares what for brevity we’ll call the anti-amnesty vote with Trump, but shares the anti-Trump vote with Rubio.  

There are more than enough votes for the positions that Cruz takes in both cases. If we tally the Super-Tuesday votes cast for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, the anti-Trump votes of Cruz plus Rubio win by 4.4 million to 2.9 million, but the anti-amnesty votes of Cruz plus Trump win even bigger, by 5.4 million to 1.9 million. The trouble is that the pro- and contra-amnesty split cuts across the pro- and anti-Trump split, and that makes resolution of either one much more difficult. You can only consolidate the anti-amnesty vote by splitting the anti-Trump vote, and vice versa.

And yet rightly understood, this puzzle allows us to see that Cruz could consolidate the anti-Trump vote, but Rubio could not. That’s because Cruz is a part of a sizable GOP majority on both issues -- opposition to Trump, and to amnesty -- but Rubio is in the majority on one and in the minority on the other. If Cruz were to ask his voters to unify against Trump behind Rubio, many would not do so, because that would align them with the pro-amnesty position of Rubio. But if Rubio voters were asked to shift they’d be in a very different position. Their move to Cruz to stop Trump would be neutral with respect to the anti-amnesty and anti-establishment position because that is common to both Trump and Cruz. The decision to support Cruz or instead to let Trump win produces the same result in that respect. That is why Rubio can’t possibly win the nomination for the Presidency in this election cycle. All that is left for him to think about now is his future. 

Rubio is still a young man, and there are many other Presidential cycles ahead for him. How will the actions he takes now position him for future races? 

Four years ago, Rubio was a rising star whose future in the GOP seemed bright. Poor judgment on his part has squandered much of his promise. Co-authoring the extremist Gang-of-8 bill in violation of his Senate election promises, a deceitful PR campaign for the bill in which he badly misled many major conservative figures, his robotic reliance on talking points, and his recent descent to Donald Trump’s level of juvenile insults -- taken together, all of this has damaged his standing with GOP voters. And if he tops all of that off by handing Trump the nomination on winner-take-all day by pointless vote-splitting, and further by getting humiliated in his home state of Florida, he’ll live to regret the drag on his political future caused by memories of what he did in 2016.  

But there is still time, though not much, for him to turn this around. If Rubio were to withdraw now, before he is forced to, and explain that he is doing so to save the country from the disaster of a Trump nomination and probable Clinton presidency, the memory of a gracious, public-spirited action might well eclipse other memories of this election cycle. Rubio could be remembered with gratitude and admiration for having put the general good above his own in 2016. He has nothing to lose by doing this: whatever they do, brokered conventions don’t turn to people who consistently lost. And he has much to gain.

Will he be smart enough to do what’s best for him, as well as the nation? Or will the immaturity and lack of judgment he has sometimes shown this year stand in the way? Rubio’s window of opportunity to do something to help himself ends in just one week: March 15 will already be too late, for on that date Rubio will probably lose his home state and so be forced out. He won’t score any points for the future with that.

John M. Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars

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