In his final news conference before Super Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) did it again. Beset by questions on what it would take for him to "win" the day, or even to "do well," he lowered expectations for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
"What we will see, I believe, is Donald Trump and me coming out both with a significant chunk of delegates and everyone else far behind," Cruz said.
The meaning of "significant" was left open to interpretation, but it would still be undeniably positive for Rubio. The Floridian has become the LeBron James of the "expectations game," transforming a third-place Iowa finish into "Marcomentum," and a photo finish for second in South Carolina into his coronation as Trump's main opponent.
Rubio's rivals are setting the stage for even a modest performance to look like a win -- perhaps a big enough win to get endorsers off the sidelines. Cruz repeatedly has defined success as beating Trump in any state. Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) has predicted that Trump will "win all of" the Super Tuesday states.
Both men have an interest in lowballing Tuesday night's results. Kasich insists that he will win Ohio on March 15, while Rubio will rack up silver and bronze medals on his way to losing Florida. Cruz, who resents that Rubio is treated like the last legitimate anti-Trump candidate, wants to reeducate the press on how elections work.
Neither argument leaves any room for a decent Rubio night. That's a risk, given how little data is being used to predict the results of less-covered Super Tuesday states. In several states -- Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont -- there has been no public polling whatsoever since the primary contest was winnowed to five candidates.
In Alaska and Minnesota, Rubio organized early, tapping Alaska consultant Art Hackney and 2014 Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson to try to win infamously low-turnout caucuses. It was Hackney who helped George W. Bush stave off Steve Forbes in Alaska, winning votes 1,571 to Forbes's 1,566. In 2016, a similar Rubio win would "put him on the board" -- a possibility Cruz and Kasich refuse to publicly consider.
Alaska's results would not come in until Wednesday morning at the earliest, but the only public polling in Minnesota has shown Rubio ahead, and the senator is making a last-minute stop in the state before the vote.
Constant underestimation has worked well for Rubio. The senator's allies, who duped some analysts into thinking Rubio would lay off Trump in last week's debate (he decidedly did not), are now publicly wringing their hands about a Super Tuesday blowout.
"There is a very narrow way forward," former U.S. senator Mel Martinez of Florida told Politico on Monday. It was the sort of statement that would allow Martinez to claim new momentum if Rubio won even one state Tuesday, or beat Cruz for delegates, on his way back to Florida.
There has been no comparable expectations-setting for Cruz, who has had to answer a fairly glib question about whether he can "win" Texas for the last two weeks. The senator, who is celebrating election results in that state tonight, is on track for a win that will fall far below the 50 percent that would hand him all 155 Texas delegates. According to Princeton's Sam Wang, Cruz was on track to win 93 delegates to 57 for Trump and 5 for Rubio -- a net of just 38 delegates.
A result like that would not put Rubio "far behind" Cruz if the Floridian had a decent Super Tuesday elsewhere. But in one of his final rallies before the vote, Cruz tried to bury expectations for Rubio again. In San Antonio, Cruz claimed that "the only campaign that is in a position to beat Donald Trump tomorrow on Super Tuesday is us."