But there are strong reasons to think that not only won’t Rubio drop out no matter what the results are today, he could stay in the race for a very long time, even if he never wins anywhere. And the same could be said for Ted Cruz. They might not be able to stop Trump, but they’re going to drag the race out as long as they can, each for his own reasons. The result could resemble game of chicken that neither one is likely to win.
Let’s start with Rubio. At the moment he still has a plausible path to the nomination, even if it’s not all that likely. It involves doing passably well today and picking up some delegates, since they’re awarded on a proportional basis. Then it means winning his home state of Florida, where delegates are winner-take-all, then becoming the only alternative to Trump and beating him on the long road to the nomination.
But even if that doesn’t happen, as long as both he and Cruz are in the race, they could hold Trump under the threshold of 50 percent he needs to win the nomination outright. Rubio’s best hope may be a brokered convention, where the party leaders who are now backing him would rally around him and he’d emerge as the nominee. He increases his claim to being that choice with every delegate he can get, even if he doesn’t have enough to win.
Keep in mind also that Rubio doesn’t have a job to go back to. He chose not to run for reelection to the Senate, and while he could do something like run for governor of Florida in two years and prepare for another run for the White House in the future, as long as there’s even the slightest chance that he could wind up with the nomination, even through a brokered convention, it’s worth his while to stay in. That could be true even if he loses Florida on March 15th (and he’s trailing Trump there by almost 20 points).
What about Cruz? If the polls hold, he’ll win Texas today, but nothing else. And his “southern strategy” pretty much winds down after today, since most of the South will have voted. But having another state win under his belt could give him just enough rationale to hold on indefinitely and present himself as the only alternative to Trump.
Let’s not forget who Ted Cruz is and what kind of political persona he has constructed. As Joshua Green points out, no matter how many people tell him it would be better if he stepped aside in favor of Rubio, Cruz won’t care, because “no one in Washington has shown a more resolute willingness to ignore the wishes of party leaders than Cruz.” Furthermore, carrying on a fight even after you’ve lost is what Cruz is all about. Ted Cruz never surrenders, because victory isn’t found in the outcome but in the fight itself. Bowing out early would be completely antithetical to everything he’s supposed to stand for.
And if Trump winds up being the nominee and loses, conservative Republicans will tell themselves the same thing they did after John McCain lost and after Mitt Romney lost: If only we had nominated a real conservative, we would have won. This is an argument Cruz makes in favor of his candidacy all the time, and it’s the argument he’ll make to justify a second run in 2020.
So in this game of chicken, neither Rubio nor Cruz has any incentive to pull out of the race until the moment that Trump passes 50 percent of the delegates and has the nomination in hand. And that could be quite some time from now.