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First Read: Are Rubio and Sanders Playing to Win?

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Are Rubio and Sanders playing to win?

After Donald Trump’s third-straight victory last night (in the Nevada caucuses) and as Hillary Clinton is set up for a big triumph on Saturday (in South Carolina), it’s become increasingly clear that their top primary opponents aren’t playing to win. In the Republican contest, Marco Rubio is more concerned about reducing the size of the field than taking on Trump. “As long as there are four people running, you will see results like you saw last night,” Rubio said on NBC’s “Today” this morning. When NBC’s Willie Geist asked the Florida senator why he wasn’t going after Trump, he replied, “That is a media narrative… I’m not in this race to attack anyone… I didn’t run for office to tear up other Republicans.” On paper, Rubio’s logic is sound: wait for the field to winnow, shoot to capture the winner-take-all contests of Florida and Ohio on March 15, and prepare for hand-to-hand delegate combat through June and possibly the GOP convention. The problem with that approach: What happens if Trump runs the table -- or most of it -- in the Super Tuesday contests on March 1? And what happens if Trump wins in Florida on March 15? As the delegate count stands right now, Trump has nearly twice as many delegates as the rest of the GOP field combined -- 79 for Trump vs. 46 for everyone else.

Sanders’ advertising strategy looks more like a path to getting a good convention speaking slot than beating Hillary Clinton for the nomination

Similarly, Bernie Sanders right now is advertising in the Super Tuesday states where he’s favored (Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma). The problem with that: When you add those four states with Vermont, they contain 288 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, while the other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) have 571 delegates, including 222 for Texas alone. So that looks like a strategy to maximize delegates to have a good speaking role at a convention, but it doesn’t look like a strategy to beat Hillary Clinton. When asked about this yesterday on MTP Daily, Sanders strategist Tad Devine said, “If you wanted to do media campaigns in all of those states, you'd probably have to spend $50 million... Different campaigns have different strategies. Our strategy in the next week is to win as many delegates as we can... We think this nomination process is going to go on for a long time, all of the way through California.” But as the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman projects, Clinton might emerge with about a 75-delegate lead over after Sanders in the South Carolina and March 1 contests. And when you add the superdelegates to the total, that means Sanders would need to win 58% of the remaining delegates to break even -- which is almost impossible under a proportional allocation system. “In short, it could very quickly become mathematically implausible for Sanders to come back from a large delegate deficit,” Wasserman writes.

More record turnout for the GOP

As for last night’s contest in Nevada, Trump won with 46% of the vote, Rubio got 24%, and Ted Cruz got 21%. But to us, the biggest story from last night was the record GOP turnout (75,000-plus). Yes, it was chaotic, but Nevada becomes the fourth-straight GOP contest where we’ve seen record Republican turnout. There is a revolution going on in the 2016 race, but it’s (largely) coming from Donald Trump and his supporters.

Disrespecting the process and the presidency

Consider these headlines in the past month:

  • The Washington Post: “GOP leaders have already announced they will ignore the White House budget rather than engage in another round of brinksmanship with the president. In an unusual move, they broke with a four-decade tradition and declined to invite Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to give his customary testimony on the spending proposal.”
  • The New York Times: “Senate Republican leaders said Tuesday that there would be no confirmation hearings, no vote, not even a courtesy meeting with President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.”
  • Business Insider: “Senator [Pat Roberts of Kansas] tweets video of himself dramatically throwing Obama’s Guantanamo ‘plan’ into a waste bin.”

Republicans, of course, don’t have to like the president’s budget, eventual Supreme Court pick, or Gitmo plan. They can always vote against them. But show some respect for the process and the institution. Or you end up getting stories like this one: “After years of watching political opponents question the president’s birthplace and his faith, and hearing a member of Congress shout ‘You lie!’ at him from the House floor, some African-Americans saw the move by Senate Republicans as another attempt to deny the legitimacy of the country’s first black president. And they call it increasingly infuriating after Mr. Obama has spent seven years in the White House and won two resounding election victories.”

Is this the Trump Effect?

You have to ask yourself: Is this the Trump Effect -- where decorum gets thrown out the window? Where the only thing that gets noticed is intransigence? Members of Congress, do you want to be in a world where the government is incapable of governing, legislating, and respecting institutions? Decorum and respect might not seem like big things in our polarized political system, but they should matter to institutions. And ironically, this behavior is only reinforcing the Trump narrative that you can't get anything done, and it only helps Trump. The GOP leadership has a funny way of trying to stop Trump; they seem intent on helping tear their own selves down."

What Obama is looking for in his SCOTUS nominee

Per NBC News: Obama, in a post published on the SCOTUSBlog website Wednesday, explained the characteristics he is looking for in a nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Feb. 13. ‘First and foremost, the person I appoint will be eminently qualified,’ Obama wrote. ‘He or she will have an independent mind, rigorous intellect, impeccable credentials, and a record of excellence and integrity. I'm looking for a mastery of the law, with an ability to hone in on the key issues before the Court, and provide clear answers to complex legal questions." But, the president said, that same person would not sit on the court with the purpose of trying to change the law. ‘I seek judges who approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand,’ the president continued.”

On the trail

Hillary Clinton spends her day campaigning in South Carolina, while husband Bill stumps in Virginia… Bernie Sanders hits Missouri and Oklahoma… Donald Trump delivers a speech to Regents University in Virginia Beach, VA at noon ET… Marco Rubio stumps in Texas… John Kasich is in Mississippi and Louisiana… And Ben Carson campaigns in Texas.

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 3 days

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 6 days