Ted Cruz has failed: He can't beat Donald Trump but he just might be the GOP's only chance to nominate Marco Rubio

If Cruz were to drop out, he'd likely push his base to support Rubio against Trump over spite alone

Published February 22, 2016 4:50PM (EST)

Ted Cruz has sold himself as the only viable alternative to Donald Trump, the one candidate who can unite the conservative base. His strategy has been simple: Win the evangelical vote and run as the non-Trump anti-establishment candidate. Although it was a bit of fool's gold, Cruz's victory in Iowa (partly the result of underhanded tactics) helped prop up his narrative a few weeks longer.

After his disappointing performances in New Hampshire and South Carolina, however, it's clear Cruz can't win.

South Carolina was tailor-made for Cruz. His only true constituency is evangelicals, and they represent roughly 73 percent of the voters who participated in South Carolina's primary. This is a demographic Cruz has shamelessly courted for months, knowing they were his only path to the nomination. Despite that, Cruz lost South Carolina's evangelical vote by six points to – you guessed it – Donald Trump

As Politico noted, Cruz still has the support of religious entrepreneurs like James Dobson and Tony Perkins, but these “movement conservative leaders” don't matter in this election. It hasn't translated into votes thus far (not enough in any case), and there's no reason to suspect that will change moving forward.

Cruz continues to reinforce his message: “If you are a conservative, this is where you belong, because only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race. We are the only campaign that has beaten and can beat Donald Trump.” But that's not really true. Yes, Cruz won in Iowa, but that was under suspicious circumstances. Iowa, moreover, is among the most religious electorates in the Republican Party. And Trump had virtually no ground game there (which is crucial in Iowa) until the very end, whereas Cruz invested heavily and for a long time in the state.

At any rate, if Cruz can't sway evangelicals in South Carolina, what reason is there to think he can do so in other states? Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report makes a similar point:

“From the beginning, Cruz's strategy was based on putting together a strong showing among conservative and evangelical voters that would help muscle him through South Carolina and the SEC primary states. Yet in South Carolina, a state where 73 percent of the electorate defined themselves as evangelical, and where Cruz attacked Trump for his past support of abortion rights, Cruz lost the evangelical vote by six points! If Cruz can't win in South Carolina...what makes him think that he can win in similar-looking southern states that vote on March 1?”

Now that Jeb has suspended his campaign, the race has crystallized even further: John Kasich is an afterthought; Ben Carson is politically dead but appears determined to sell a few more books before exiting stage left; and Rubio – astonishingly – is the last semi-credible candidate standing. The Republican donor class is already begrudgingly accepting the reality of Rubio as their only chance at deflating the Trump juggernaut.

As it stands, Trump seems unstoppable. He holds a comfortable lead in 10 of the 14 states set to vote in Republican primaries in the next two weeks, several of which are are winner-take-all states. Assuming Kasich and Carson eventually drop out, the only plausible scenario in which Trump loses involves the race narrowing to two candidates: Trump and Rubio. And that means Cruz would have to go.

Cruz won't win the nomination, but he does have a significant support base – and more than enough resources to carry on. Were he to end his campaign, many of his supporters would likely flock to Rubio. The Trump-Cruz spat, after all, has gotten pretty ugly in recent weeks. Out of spite alone, you can expect Cruz to push his voters to support Rubio over Trump in the event he dropped out. If that happened, there may just be enough anti-Trump sentiment to tip the scales.

Unfortunately, for the GOP, if there's one candidate in this race who couldn't care less about the fate of the party or the country or anyone other than himself, it's Ted Cruz. Nothing in Cruz's recent political history suggests he'll sacrifice himself or his celebrity for the greater good. Nothing. He's in this until the very end. And when Trump finally nabs the nomination, Cruz won't blink. If anything, he'll be on a stump somewhere campaigning for 2020, with his hands – and pockets – wide open.

Ted Cruz Thinks He's The Only Republican Who Can Beat Trump

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

MORE FROM Sean Illing