The conventional wisdom now is that Texas Sen. 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.
His third-place showing in South Carolinawas 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 Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former neurosureon Ben Carson are fringe at this point. Cruz has plenty of money, and he’ll receive 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.
We have no new public polling since Saturday’s election in South Carolina in those states, and few surveys altogether. We’ll get some new numbers in the coming days, but it’s hard to extrapolate from what we have now.
If Cruz can win several states, and beat Rubio everywhere, on Super Tuesday, maybe we’re down to Cruz vs. billionaire Donald Trump, and Cruz could win that.
This is hardly the most likely outcome, and he had a bad day on Monday – he fired his spokesman after a gaffe, and Rubio got a bunch of new endorsements. But it is better than the prediction markets are giving him.
On the other hand, perhaps Rubio’s late surge in South Carolina hints he’ll run 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. 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, 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.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.