In many ways, Super Tuesday turned out as expected. Hillary Clinton won a majority of the Democratic contests, and Donald Trump won a majority of the Republican contests. Based on these results, it is clear that both Clinton and Trump are their parties’ frontrunners and that they have the momentum. However, many Republicans are still uncomfortable with the notion of Trump being their nominee. As such, the Super Tuesday results raise new questions and concerns. For those Republicans who are still waiting for a viable alternative to Trump to emerge, Tuesday’s results probably did not clarify who that consensus candidate will be.
Without question, Ted Cruz has a credible claim to being the Trump alternative. With four primary victories under his belt—including three on Super Tuesday—he is second only to Donald Trump in terms of primary victories. He evinced as much in his acceptance speech after winning the Texas and Oklahoma primaries, when he asked his opponents and their supporters to rally behind his candidacy. Even arch-rival Lindsey Graham conceded that he might have to put aside his differences with the brash Cruz to ensure that Trump does not secure the nomination.
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Graham’s dilemma speaks to the heart of the problem of the Republican Party uniting behind Cruz. There are real personal, strategic, and ideological cleavages which make it hard for the party to coalesce behind one vision, making it easy for an outsider like Trump to come in and gain momentum. While the party may have been relatively united in its opposition to President Obama’s legislative agenda, there are real concerns with Cruz’s senatorial strategy of intransigence and questions about whether it does more to hurt or help the Republican brand. Moreover, his willingness to oppose even his party’s leadership in the Senate has not inured him to the establishment. In a Trump-free primary, Cruz clearly would have been in a position to rally those clamoring for change and staunch conservatives. Next to Trump, though, even he looks like an insider—just without the perks that come with being a member of the establishment in good standing.
This is what makes Marco Rubio’s claim to the establishment lane seem remotely credible. Rubio finally won a state on Super Tuesday, but that had never stopped him from touting his second and third place finishes as evidence of the fact that he should be the designated Trump alternative. Rubio faces his own challenges, though. Rubio appears to have a more serious challenge from Trump on his home turf than Cruz did. The most recent Florida polls give Trump a more than 15 point advantage over Rubio. Even more concerning, polls from Michigan and Ohio suggest that Rubio (and John Kasich, who is betting his electoral future on a win in his home state) has a lot of ground to cover. This becomes more important because states like Ohio and Florida award delegates only to primary winners, not second and third place finishers.
It is unlikely at this point that any candidate is taking Ted Cruz’s invitation to unite behind his candidacy seriously (Though there are reports that Republican operatives are trying to lure Ben Carson out of the presidential contest by offering him a chance to run for Marco Rubio’s senate seat). And this points to the depth of the fractures in the current Republican Party. We have known for years about the cleavages between the Tea Party and the establishment wings. But Donald Trump’s success has shown that even the Tea Party did not capture or organize all of the anti-establishment fervor on the right. If the Republican Party is to survive, they must figure out a way to reconcile the establishment, Tea Party, and insurgent wings with their myriad interests and competing strategies. It remains to be seen whether such reconciliation is even possible.
Andra Gillespie is an associate professor of political science at Emory University.