With a handful of early-state skirmishes behind them, the remaining candidates for the Republican presidential nomination today begin the first full-scale battle of the 2016 primary election cycle. Voters go to the polls in 12 states today, and if billionaire demagogue Donald Trump performs as well as he’s expected to, they could make him the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination – a result that could reshape the Republican Party for a generation or more.
Running on appeals to voters’ fear of terrorism and illegal immigration, validation of their anger at lost economic opportunities, and a general sense of betrayal by GOP elites, Trump rolls into today’s voting with the momentum three consecutive victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the only Republican in the race other than Trump to have won a state, taking Iowa a month ago.
Unless polls across the country are wildly wrong, the real question tonight is whether Trump will collect the most delegates when the returns are counted tonight, but rather how large his margin of victory will be. He is currently leading in eight of the 11 states that will allocate delegates tonight. (Although Colorado is holding a vote, it will not award delegates until later in the spring.)
Cruz, though running third in national opinion polls, is leading in his home state of Texas and in Arkansas. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio holds a slim lead over Cruz in Minnesota. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are not expected to finish better than third in any of the states awarding delegates.
Though it seems early in the race to say so, Trump’s lead in national polling has become so formidable that he will be looking for a victory tonight decisive enough for him to declare himself the presumptive nominee. The other four candidates, by comparison, will be looking for enough votes to justify remaining in the race.
A large Trump victory will almost certainly lead to intense pressure on the remaining candidates to step aside in order to allow a single figure to unite the non-Trump voters. Rubio, who may not win a single state today, and who is trailing Trump badly in his home state of Florida, may find himself in the crosshairs. Carson and Kasich are increasingly looking like vanity candidates, and unless one of them does surprisingly well, the calls for them to drop out for the good of the party will probably become deafening.