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First Read: It's a Three-Man Republican Race

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.

It’s a three-man Republican race

After three Republican nominating races in the books, we have a three-man contest -- among Donald Trump (the winner of New Hampshire and South Carolina), Ted Cruz (the winner of Iowa), and Marco Rubio (the narrow second-place finisher in South Carolina). The exit poll from Saturday’s South Carolina primary underscores this three-man race: Trump overwhelmingly won among Republicans who want a candidate who “can bring needed change” and who “tells it like it is”; Cruz won among Republicans who want a candidate who “shares my values”; and Rubio won among those who want someone who “can win in November.” So that’s your GOP race -- Mr. Change, Mr. Values, and Mr. Electability. And all three of them have challenges heading into Super Tuesday. Can Trump continue to win as the GOP field gets smaller? (How he performs in Cruz’s Texas will be instructive.) Can Cruz broaden his appeal with Republican moderates? (He got just 7% from moderates, according to the South Carolina exit poll, and finishing third in South Carolina is a troubling sign for his longer-term growth.) And can Rubio finally win a race? (He’s the only one of the three without a gold medal.)

But Trump is your big favorite

Yet if it’s a three-man race, Donald Trump is your heavy favorite. Think about it: If anyone else had won New Hampshire and South Carolina in back-to-back contests -- like John McCain did in 2008 -- you’d say the race is over. Well, this race isn’t over, but Trump is playing with house money. If he wins in Texas on March 1, or wins in Florida on March 15, it’s done. And the way he won South Carolina, grabbing all of the state’s 50 delegates by winning just 33% of the overall vote, demonstrates how he can build a significant delegate lead come March 1.

The establishment rallying around Rubio begins

With Trump now the clear Republican frontrunner, GOP establishment types are already rallying around Rubio. NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell: “Bobbie Kilberg and her husband Bill, bundlers who first backed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then signed on to Bush's campaign in the waning days, have decided to back Rubio. ‘He is now the candidate around whom mainstream Republicans can coalesce,’ Kilberg told NBC News.” But Rubio encounters two significant hurdles in a race against Trump -- immigration (where it’s impossible for him to get to Trump’s right on the issue) and special-interest money (with Trump eager to tell audiences how Rubio will owe his big contributors).

Kasich and Carson are still playing a role by staying alive

With the GOP contest now a three-man race, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the other two Republicans still running -- John Kasich and Ben Carson. If Kasich is able to have enough money to survive two or three more weeks of campaigning, he could be a player in Michigan (March 8) and his home state of Ohio (March 15), which would hurt Rubio in those two states. And even though he finished sixth in South Carolina, Carson still captured 7% of the vote, which could potentially be going to someone else (Cruz? Trump?).

“I feel like the Republican Party as I know it suspended its campaign”

After his disappointing fourth-place finish in South Carolina, Jeb Bush suspended his campaign. And more than anything else, it emphasized how today’s Republican Party is no longer the party that Bush’s brother once led or that featured Bush as one of the country’s most conservative governors in the early 2000s. MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin: “This was a candidate who stood for an entire generation of Republican Party building, who was the figurative and literal heir to the family brand that had graced nearly every GOP ticket for a generation. And he ceded the race to a candidate whose campaign was a walking insult to his family legacy and everything Bush's supporters told themselves the party stood for. ‘I feel like the Republican Party as I know it suspended its campaign tonight,’ said Lee Spieckerman, a Texas commentator who had knocked on doors for Bush in New Hampshire and in South Carolina.”

You say you want a revolution?

Hillary Clinton’s victory in Nevada on Saturday was a big sigh of relief for her campaign, and it now gives her the ability to start pulling away in the delegate race -- with the contests in South Carolina and the March 1 states (like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia Tennessee, Virginia) coming up. Beyond keeping up in those contests, Bernie Sanders now faces this challenge: How does he convince Democratic voters that he truly is inspiring a revolution. Just look at these turnout numbers in the first three states:

  • Iowa 2008: 239,972
  • Iowa 2016: 171,109
  • New Hampshire 2008: 288,672
  • New Hampshire 2016: 250,983
  • Nevada 2008: 120,000
  • Nevada 2016: 80,000

As Sanders said on “Meet the Press” yesterday, “The voter turnout was not as high as I had wanted. And what I've said over and over again, we will do well when young people, when working-class people come out. We do not do well when the voter turnout is not large.” But what happens when that turnout isn’t as high as 1) what’s happening in the GOP race, and 2) what happened in the Dem race in 2008? That’s an important question for Sanders and his supporters to answer. If you’re promising a revolution, don’t people have to come out -- more than in 2008, more than what we’re seeing on the GOP side -- for that revolution to be successful?

Feeling the burn rate: Sanders also has a structural challenge

He’s raising a lot of money ($21 million in January), but he’s also spending like a general-election nominee ($35 million). That amounts to a 164% burn rate, and it’s why his cash on hand is less than half of the size as Hillary Clinton’s. Here are the Jan. 2016 fundraising numbers:

Raised in January

  • Sanders: $21.3 million
  • Clinton: $14.9 million
  • Cruz: $7.6 million
  • Trump: $6.1 million
  • Rubio: $4.9 million
  • Carson: $3.8 million
  • Bush: $1.6 million - OUT OF RACE
  • O’Malley: $1.2 million – OUT OF RACE
  • Kasich: $1 million
  • Christie: $837K – OUT OF RACE
  • Fiorina: $499K – OUT OF RACE
  • Huckabee: $166K – OUT OF RACE
  • Santorum: $123K – OUT OF RACE

Cash on hand (through Jan. 31)

  • Clinton: $32.9 million
  • Sanders: $14.7 million
  • Cruz: $13.6 million
  • Rubio: $5 million
  • Carson: $4.1 million
  • Fiorina: $3.3 million
  • Bush: $2.9 million
  • Trump: $1.5 million
  • Kasich: $1.5 million
  • Christie: $742K
  • O’Malley: $176K
  • Huckabee: $39K
  • Santorum: $29K

January burn rates for candidates still in race

  • Rubio: 208%
  • Kasich: 199%
  • Trump: 188%
  • Cruz: 167%
  • Sanders: 164%
  • Carson: 163%
  • Clinton: 134%

On the trail

Bill Clinton stumps in Laredo and Dallas, TX… Bernie Sanders hits Amherst, MA… Donald Trump holds rallies in Elko and Las Vegas, NV… Ted Cruz also campaigns in Nevada… Ditto Marco Rubio… And John Kasich is in Virginia.

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 1 day

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 5 days

Countdown to Super Tuesday: 8 days