The four remaining Republican presidential candidates wrapped up their final debate Thursday night before a weekend of campaigning in the crucial states of Ohio and Florida. The delegate-rich states vote along with Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina next Tuesday in contests that could give Donald Trump an insurmountable advantage for the nomination or give new life to the candidacies of his challengers, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Here are three things to look for heading into Tuesday’s vote:
Home state must-wins
Both Marco Rubio and John Kasich have staked their candidacies on votes in their home states of Florida and Ohio.
Rubio’s polling numbers in Florida do not look promising. He trails Donald Trump in all voter surveys by an average of 15 points.
“There is not any evidence he can win anywhere,” Republican strategist John Feehery said of Rubio. “It’s kind of a remarkable thing how well Trump is doing and how poorly Rubio is doing. Having the establishment support you in the primary process is kind of the kiss of death.”
Bill Gallston, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution, thinks John Kasich might have a better shot at beating Trump on his home ground if he can change the minds of less-committed Trump supporters.
“Surveys do suggest that about 20 percent of his supporters might change their minds,” said Gallston. “That could be very significant in a state like Ohio where a number of recent surveys indicate that he leads Ohio Governor John Kasich by a very narrow margin.”
A Trump victory over Rubio and Kasich could reset the campaign to a two-man race with Ted Cruz.
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, right, speaks as Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, listens, during the Republican presidential debate, March 10, 2016.
Broader appeal for Cruz?
The Texas senator could appeal to Trump voters who are looking for an anti-establishment candidate to fight for their interests in Washington. Cruz continues to do well in smaller states with conservative voters and he stands to benefit the most if Rubio and Kasich drop out of the race. He has long argued that he is the only candidate who can effectively take on Donald Trump.
“Surveys indicate that Ted Cruz would do well in that head to head confrontation. He might even beat him in the majority of states,” said Gallston.
But his moment to challenge Trump could come too late if Trump wins in Florida and Ohio on Tuesday and builds a significant delegate lead.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., smiles, as Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, grimaces, during the Republican presidential debate, March 10, 2016.
Two of the states voting on Tuesday are “winner-take-all,” meaning the candidate who scores the majority of the vote collects all of that state’s delegates for the nomination. Illinois also votes on Tuesday and rewards the winner with the majority of its delegates.
Even if Trump’s challengers do well on Tuesday, most analysts see very difficult paths ahead for Cruz, Rubio or Kasich to win the delegates needed for the nomination. Their last hope is to amass enough delegates to take the competition to the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Tuesday’s vote may end those hopes.
“There’s a pretty strong possibility we don’t have a contested convention because Donald Trump wins the nomination outright. I think the idea of a contested convention is much more wishful thinking on the part of Republicans, than it is necessarily a reflection of the reality of polling.”