In the aftermath of the South Carolina Republican primary, which saw Donald Trump win by a comfortable margin and take all of the state’s delegates, Bloomberg Politics asked a counterintuitive question: Is Marco Rubio Now the GOP Frontrunner? The obvious answer to that question is “no” – he’s won zero states, he’s well behind in the delegate count, he isn’t expected to win the Nevada caucus (even though it was once considered his strongest state), and he isn’t leading any polls as we lurch into the cluster of March primaries. Rubio does have a ton of endorsements, though, and several shiny new billionaires to brag about. But, as Jeb Bush can tell you, such things do not give much teeth to the “frontrunner” argument if you can’t actually win.
The real frontrunner is, of course, Trump. He easily won two of the three early states, he’ll probably win Nevada, and he’s leading the polls in most states heading into March. But beyond the numerical metrics and the easily observed political reality, we know that Trump is the frontrunner because the other candidates are trying to make themselves more and more Trumpish as days wear on and the pool of delegates grows smaller.
Trump has built a strong following within the Republican electorate with his plan for undocumented immigration. That plan is equal parts insane, draconian, illegal, and unrealistic, but it’s what GOP voters apparently want to hear. So it’s no coincidence that in the last week, as Trump’s status as frontrunner has solidified, the two non-Trump favorites for the nomination – Rubio and Ted Cruz – both hardened up their stances on immigration.
Just a couple of days before the South Carolina primary, Rubio went on CNN and said that he would, on the first day of his presidency, eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Obama created via executive order. That program provides a temporary reprieve from deportation to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as minors. Rubio has never supported the program, but he opposed eliminating it immediately on the grounds that such swift action would cause turmoil among the program’s beneficiaries. “Marco also said it’s important not to end DACA immediately since it would be disruptive given all the people that have it,” Rubio’s spokesman told Breitbart News last April. “At a certain point it would have to end since it cannot be the permanent policy of the land.” Now he’s taken a more hardline position and favors getting rid of it on his first day in office, which would expose all those immigrants to the threat of deportation once again. This shift fits in nicely with Rubio’s broader arc on immigration, which has seen him go from consensus dealmaker on comprehensive reform to “border security first” hard-ass in a bid to win wary conservatives back to his cause.
Cruz, meanwhile, has always been more of a hardliner on immigration than Rubio, but he’s nonetheless in the same position of having to poach anti-immigrant voters from Trump. And so when Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly asked Cruz this week if he would deport all of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the county, Cruz said: “Listen, we should enforce the law. How do we enforce the law? Yes, we should deport them. We should build a wall, we should triple the Border Patrol. And federal law requires that anyone here illegally that’s apprehended should be deported.” As Greg Sargent writes, Cruz essentially promised to end the Obama administration’s practice of prioritizing certain undocumented immigrant populations for deportation. He’s taking a shot at outflanking Trump from the right on immigration, which is no small undertaking.
But again, the reason these shifts are happening is because Trump has become the center of gravity in the 2016 race. All the serious non-Trump candidates are trying to figure out ways to crack into the Trump coalition because that coalition has made him the frontrunner, and right now they’re inching rightward to convince Trump voters that they’ll be super tough on undocumented immigrants too. The problem with that strategy, as other candidates have learned to their peril, is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to out-Trump Trump.