For all the jostling and jockeying taking place in South Carolina ahead of this weekend’s Republican primary, little of it will be decisive.
If anything, the outcome Saturday night only stands to muddy an already messy contest to lead a deeply fractured Republican Party. Losers may not be forced to leave the race, and the still-uncertain winner will leave the state with nothing guaranteed.
The growing consensus among many senior Republicans is that there are three likely outcomes facing Republicans. Donald Trump could win enough delegates to be the nominee. Ted Cruz could do the same. Or no candidate emerges from the final primaries on June 7 with the required 1,237 delegates to win when the intra-party convention starts in Cleveland.
That means the remaining candidates with a claim to party establishment backing—Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—see their chances for winning the nomination before the July convention dwindling. National and early-state polls have shown Trump and Cruz polling with a combined share of more than half of party voters. The also-rans do not have a clear path, barring a sudden collapse in support for Trump or Cruz, to cobble together sufficient support to put up a roadblock to the outsiders’ aggressions, even if two of the candidates agreed to drop out to unite behind the third.
Read More: Donald Trump's 'Lizard Brain'
This uncertainty is informing strategy, with candidates and operatives plotting courses deep into the calendar in hopes of picking up as many delegates as possible. Until March 15, every state awards delegates using some form of proportional allocation, meaning there are multiple winners for each contest. But on that date, Florida and Ohio vote in the first true winner-take-all races, which are likely to favor the home-state favorite and establishment candidates, though Trump now leads the Florida polls by a significant margin. That’s why Bush, Rubio and Kasich are all looking forward to moment when they can keep campaigning but still sleep in their own beds.
From a delegate perspective, the race is still a tossup. Just 2% of the 2,472 convention delegates have been awarded in Iowa and New Hampshire. The rewards have been little more than headlines.
What’s changed, strategists say, is the realization that Cruz and Trump support is not fading after Iowa. “Trump has proven he has staying power with actual voters, and Cruz is about to hit his fertile ground,” said one campaign strategist. On March 1, 13 states will hold primaries to award 571 delegates, including Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama. They are states where Cruz is expected to perform well, where Trump, meanwhile, has led Massachusetts polls, and is expected to fare well in Vermont. The nationalization of the race after Saturday’s primary in South Carolina will, in strategists' view, continue the trend, as it has in recent contests. “If they’re all getting delegates then no one is going to get the required delegates and you’re going to have a contested convention,” says GOP lawyer and RNC rules guru Ben Ginsberg. Welcome to a nominee decided by food fight.
One scenario for the establishment lane is for a single establishment candidate to emerge after March 1—with Rubio, Bush or Kasich suspending their campaigns. But Jeb Bush had promised he’s “in it for the long haul.” Current polls suggest Rubio will beat both of them in South Carolina. Kasich is convinced Ohio, the swingiest of swing states, will have his back.
Kasich has left behind the traditional campaign map, escaping South Carolina for a two-day jaunt to Michigan (voting March 8), and plans to spend primary day in Vermont and Massachusetts (both voting March 1). The three proportional-voting states offer a better chance at picking up delegates and keeping his campaign in the mix until the Ohio Primary on March 15, when he stands the opportunity to pick up all 66 delegates. In South Carolina, Kasich hopes to play the role of spoiler, keeping establishment support from consolidating around either Bush or Rubio.
Another scenario is for Bush, Kasich and Rubio to stay in the race, dividing up the vote that does not go to Trump and Cruz. In this scenario, they could collectively gather enough delegates to deny Cruz or Trump the nomination at the convention. “The way I look at it, maybe it’s a rationalization, but as long as they pull roughly a third of the vote between them, it’s the same result as if one of them was there,” said Ginsberg, who worked for Mitt Romney and won George W. Bush’s 2000 recount fight at the Supreme Court. “Maybe better,” he added, suggesting that combined they appeal to more voters than just one would.
If no candidate wins a majority of the delegate votes on the first ballot at the convention, party rules allow most of the delegates to change their vote to a different candidate, possibly allowing for a nominee to emerge who received less popular support in primaries and caucuses. The final rules for this battle will be set by the delegates themselves in Cleveland.
For their part, both Cruz and Trump say they are confident that they will win the nomination outright. And Cruz, rival campaigns contend, “will fight to convention no matter what,” even if it’s not mathematically possible for him to win. For his part, Cruz’s campaign is fine with the also-rans still running. “This is a two-man race, and the other guys are fighting for scraps,” one senior adviser to Cruz said. “If they keep fighting each other with quickly emptying war chests, that leaves to two of us fighting over who is an actual conservative. And, forgive me, I like our odds."