We are living in surreal times when a presidential candidate fails to win any of the first four early states, and yet is continuously treated as the front-runner of the Republican race by reputable mainstream media outlets.
And this is precisely what has been happening with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. His third-place finish in Iowa was lauded by establishment Republicans, as was his second-place finish in South Carolina over Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by around 0.2 percent. But with Donald Trump’s overwhelming and crushing victory in the Nevada caucus, Rubio’s backers are starting to worry. They are certainly justified in doing so.
As Ross Douthat of The New York Times highlights, Rubio has been focusing his energy on attacking Cruz during the past few weeks. This has definitely worked somewhat to his advantage, as Cruz’s numbers have dropped in regions where he was expected to do well, while Rubio’s numbers have risen.
But there is precious time left for Rubio to do what he needs to do; namely, consolidate the support of non-Trump Republican voters behind him, which includes the voters currently supporting Cruz. The fact that neither Gov. John Kasich of Ohio or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have dropped out yet makes Rubio’s task more difficult, and makes Trump’s path to the nomination easier.
Any potential path to the nomination requires winning critical swing states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. With no chance of Kasich dropping out before March 15 -- when the Ohio primary will be held -- and Ben Carson hanging onto some meager support, Rubio does not have the numbers needed to seriously compete with Trump.
Although many observers are expecting Rubio to do well in the contests held in late February and early March, the fragmented non-Trump vote means he is not actually projected to win in any of these states, as the Los Angeles Times notes.
This is not a strategy to win the nomination, much less take the White House. And while there is a still long way for Trump to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to become the party’s nominee, Trump still leads Rubio and Cruz in the delegate count by about five times as much.
Beyond this, Trump has not even turned his attentions to attacking Rubio yet, according to CNN. He has previously mocked Rubio’s tendency to sweat and drink a lot of water during public speeches, but he has so far held back from seriously attacking the Florida senator. If Trump is able to shape voters’ perceptions about Rubio in the same way he came to shape former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida's campaign image as “low-energy,” it could all be over even faster.
Rubio needs nothing short of a miracle in the next few states to prove to donors his campaign is worth backing. But the time for consolidation is now over. The leaders of the Republican Party need to think long and hard about how it got to this point if they feel disappointed by their eventual nominee, which is Donald J. Trump.