For the first time in nearly a month, Donald Trump looks mortal again.
Four states held Republican primaries or caucuses on Saturday, but the GOP frontrunner came away with just two wins that were both quite narrow, in Louisiana and Kentucky. He lost the Maine caucuses — his first defeat in the Northeast — and got blown out in Kansas.
And for the first time, it appeared that most of the anti-Trump voters across the country broke toward the same candidate — Ted Cruz. The Texas senator easily won Kansas and Maine, and finished just a few points behind Trump in both Louisiana and Kentucky.
Cruz's victory in Maine was particularly impressive. Until today, the Texas senator hadn't managed to top 12 percent in any of the three Northeastern states that had voted so far (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont). This led many analysts to conclude that Cruz's appeal was regionally limited — that he couldn't win in the Northeast. But the Maine outcome complicates this narrative.
Perhaps the most heartening development for Cruz, though, was in Louisiana, where results indicated that voters swung late toward him and away from Trump and Rubio.
The first votes to be counted were early votes, which, according to Nate Silver, showed Trump dominant with about 48 percent, and Cruz and Rubio essentially tied with 23 percent and 20 percent, respectively. That looked like it would mirror what we saw in the rest of the Deep South on Super Tuesday.
But as election day votes were gradually counted, Cruz's share of the vote suddenly surged, while Trump's declined and Rubio's utterly collapsed. The most recent vote total showed Trump still in first with 42 percent, but Cruz not too far behind him at 38 percent, while Rubio was far back at a mere 11 percent.
And if future states' results look more like those Louisiana election day tallies, things will get really interesting.
We could be heading for a Trump vs. Cruz race
All this matters because Trump has been winning plurality victories against a divided field so far. He didn't have one clear nemesis in every state — instead, voters rallied behind Cruz in some states, Rubio in others, and even Kasich in a couple.
Super Tuesday looked so excellent for Trump because both it looked like the race might remain in that stasis for a while — with Trump in first, but Rubio and Cruz relatively competitive with each other for second in a variety of states.
But tonight, things suddenly looked quite different. Rubio utterly dropped off the map in Louisiana and Maine, getting about 11 percent and 8 percent of the vote, respectively. He did a bit better in Kansas and Kentucky, but could only get 17 percent in each. Meanwhile, John Kasich remained far back in every state (though he did top Rubio to get third place in Maine).
Instead, it was Cruz who rose to the occasion, suggesting that we could be entering a new phase of the race — Trump versus Cruz.
Now, Trump will remain the frontrunner after tonight — there weren't enough delegates at stake to put that at risk. But, as Vox's delegate tracker shows, he'll still have less than a third of the delegates he needs for a majority. And Cruz will be less than 100 delegates behind him.
If Cruz keeps performing like he did on Saturday — beating Trump badly in some states, and coming very close to him in others — he could well close that gap. And depending on the results of the winner-take-all states that will start voting in mid-March, it's certainly possible that he could surpass Trump.
That's not to say that he will do either of those things. We don't know how a head-to-head matchup between Trump and Cruz would turn out. But that late swing toward Cruz in Louisiana, and his surprising strength in Maine, show that Cruz shouldn't be counted out. He may give Donald Trump a real run for his money just yet.