Goodnight, Mr Rubio

As another day of primary voting ends in the United States, the race has gained just a little more in clarity. Today’s development is that the failure of Marco Rubio’s candidacy is now obvious for all to see: out of four races, Rubio managed two thirds and two fourths, from which he will pick up (according to the Green Papers) just one delegate.

John Kasich, who also had two thirds and two fourths, at least won 17 delegates from Michigan, the day’s biggest prize, where he had 24.3% of the vote and came within 0.6% of knocking off Ted Cruz for second place. But Rubio in Michigan could score only 9.3%. (Don’t miss Nate Silver’s dissection of his failings.)

Rubio may still stay in until his home state of Florida votes next week, but assuming he loses there – and the market now gives him only an 11.5% chance of winning – there’s really no point in continuing. He has fewer than half as many delegates as Ted Cruz, and there is now no denying that Cruz is the only one who can possibly beat Donald Trump outright. Ever other route leads either to a Trump victory or a contested Republican convention.

As Matt Yglesias said last week, it “could become the most interesting thing to ever happen in the city of Cleveland.”

Trump had a good day, winning Michigan, Mississippi and the Hawaii caucuses, and coming second to Cruz in Idaho. But with delegates still all being allocated proportionally (winner-take-all contests can only be held from next week), his lead in terms of delegates didn’t grow much. He remains the favorite, but is by no means unbeatable.

No-one paid much attention when, nearly three months ago, I talked up Cruz’s chances – and indeed I later had doubts myself, given his extreme unpopularity among the Republican establishment. But the point I made there is still important:

If the extremists can sort themselves out behind a single candidate – and Cruz seems as good as any – that candidate will be very hard to beat. If Trump falters, his supporters will prefer Cruz to Rubio or any of the other mainstream candidates, while if Rubio looks unable to beat Trump, mainstream voters, however reluctantly, will mostly back Cruz rather than leave their party in the hands of a big-haired neo-fascist.

But here the GOP enters uncharted waters. No party has ever nominated a candidate whose views are as far out of the mainstream as Cruz’s are. Only when matched against Trump could he seem like a moderate choice; by any other standard he is an A-grade extremist.

Cruz as a candidate would not lay waste the Republican Party in the same way that Trump would. But electorally he would be just as much of a disaster. Trump at least has some potential upside, in that he may lure more nativist working-class votes away from the Democrats, but with Cruz it’s basically all downside.

On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders scored an upset win – albeit a narrow one – in Michigan, 49.9% to Hillary Clinton’s 48.2% (with a handful of probably pro-Clinton precincts still to come). Clinton scored a huge win in Mississippi (the other two contests were Republican only), so the honors for the day were about even.

That will generate some favorable publicity for Sanders, and certainly keep him in the race for a while longer. But it doesn’t change the fundamental delegate maths that make Clinton very hard indeed to beat overall.

Having to fight for the nomination, however, will keep Clinton on her toes, and may well be to her benefit in the long run – just as many thought that Barack Obama benefited from his gruelling primary campaign against Clinton eight years ago.

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