“Pundits put too much emphasis on the early states.” That’s the complaint that is always rendered when discussing Presidential elections and claims that this candidate is going to win or this candidate is going to lose based upon early primaries and caucuses. To see this in action, one need only to look at 1996 when Bob Dole lost five of the first six voting events before sweeping the rest.
2016 is different. News travels faster. Momentum ups and downs last longer. Buzz is no longer relegated to the talking points set forth to mainstream media by the Republican Establishment. I would contend that if the internet were more prominent and social media existed back in 1996, Pat Buchanan would have been the nominee and Steve Forbes would have come in second and likely been his running mate.
Marco Rubio needs a win. Even the best spindoctors in the world couldn’t position a second or third place finish as a positive for him because this is supposed to be his state. He’s evangelical, supports the military, and has endorsements from two of the most powerful politicians in the state: Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott. His strategy of 3-2-1 (3rd in Iowa, 2nd in New Hampshire, 1st in South Carolina) hit a stumbling block with his abysmal 5th place finish in New Hampshire, but if he can deliver on the third leg of his plan, he’s back in the race and suddenly the new frontrunner for the nomination.
It’s a big if. Right now, he’s a close third to Ted Cruz in most polls, but both are far off from Donald Trump. A Trump victory would eliminate all but Cruz even if Rubio comes in second. A Cruz victory nearly eliminates all but Trump, though Rubio would still have some life if he came in second to Cruz and dropped Trump to third. South Carolina will determine the race going forward.
The best bet for Rubio is to take on Trump directly. He’s been focused lately on Jeb Bush and John Kasich, the other two remaining “Establishment” candidates, but that’s not going to work in South Carolina. He needs to play his hand as if he’s the only real choice to take on Cruz and Trump. In a way, he needs to pretend like Bush and Kasich don’t exist. Given this dynamic, he needs to go after Trump hard. He’s already gone after Cruz in the past with limited results. More importantly, we learned in Iowa that Trump’s supporters can fall to Rubio if he makes his case as ideologically superior.
It’s a scary prospect for any candidate. Trump is the attack dog. If he feels threatened, he attacks back hard as Bush, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker have learned. Things are different now, though, since Trump’s support seems to have plateaued while Rubio’s and Cruz’s seem to be on the rise. Rather than fighting Cruz for the anti-Trump vote today, he needs to take directly from Trump and focus on beating Cruz when the winner-take-all bluer states come up in the voting cycle. If he allows Trump to win South Carolina, his campaign is kaput.
Rubio can survive a Cruz victory if he’s able to push Trump down to third, but if Trump wins, Rubio will no longer be a viable alternative. This will truly be a two-man race.