A lot can go wrong for Republican elites in the next few weeks of the primary. But the absolute worst-case scenario for them is if Donald Trump racks up a winning streak that culminates with him beating Marco Rubio in Florida.
Well, that's exactly what's on track to happen, according to a newly released poll by Quinnipiac — and it's not even close.
Trump beats Rubio among likely Republican primary voters in Florida 44 percent to 28 percent, the poll shows. Ted Cruz comes in third with 12 percent, John Kasich is in fourth with 7 percent, and Ben Carson is in last with just 4 percent.
This result would be utterly devastating both to Rubio's campaign and to the Republican Party's chances of stopping Trump. Not only would Rubio be symbolically humiliated by losing his home state, but Trump would pick up a massive delegate haul, since Florida allots all its 99 delegates to whoever comes in first place.
Overall, it's very difficult to see how Rubio can win the nomination if he loses Florida. And it's very difficult to see how Cruz wins if Trump beats him in the South (as Super Tuesday polls currently predict). So even though Trump likely won't technically have clinched a majority by the time Florida votes on March 15, a Trump win there would likely mean that's the day the nomination is all but settled.
If this happens, Trump almost certainly wins
This result isn't exactly a surprise. Trump did lead all three Florida polls released in January by double digits, after all. But we hadn't gotten a new one in a while, and some had hoped that Rubio's recent third- and second-place finishes would have given him some momentum in ... his home state. That didn't happen: Trump's 16-point lead in the new poll remains a commanding one.
Now, it should be noted that the poll didn't test how Rubio would do one on one against Trump in Florida. If Cruz, Kasich, and Carson drop out, Rubio could well do a good deal better. But he'd have to make up a whole lot of ground to close a 16-point gap, and Trump will likely pick up some of those candidates' supporters too.
However, this very poll result makes that head-to-head matchup less likely to ever happen. Why in the world would the other candidates clear the field for Rubio if he's trailing Trump by so much in his home state? At least Cruz is still narrowly beating Trump in Texas, and Kasich ... well, he's losing to Trump in Ohio, but not by this much! (He's down by 5 in another recent Quinnipiac poll.)
The point is, Rubio has claimed to be the only candidate who can stop Trump, and it sounds plausible in theory. But he hasn't yet shown he can win anywhere — and now his ability to win even his home state is deeply in question. He'd better hope the dynamics of the race change fast — or his fate could be effectively sealed on March 15.
Update: Here's what passes for good news for Rubio these days — a new poll was released Thursday afternoon showing him only losing his home state of Florida by seven points, not the 16 he trailed by in the Quinnipiac poll.
However, on Friday morning he got some rather worse news — a Public Policy Polling poll had him trailing Trump by 20 in the full field, and down 14 to him in a head-to-head matchup between the two of them.