After a dramatic, divisive week in the race for the Republican Nomination, there's no question which candidate has the greatest momentum on Betfair markets. With the race looking ever likelier to be a three-cornered scrap, Donald Trump was matched last night at a new low of 2.447/5, which equates to a 41% likelihood of heading the GOP ticket in November's General Election.
However before rushing in, punters should beware recent history in this market. We've already seen two similarly short-priced favourites deposed - Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio - and in both 2012 and 2008, the pre-primaries market proved a terrible guide, with a slew of short-lived favourites failing to deliver where it mattered - at the polls.
At the latest Fox Business Network debate, this race entered a new, unpredictable and ultimately dangerous phase. With the main stage now restricted to seven candidates, rivals tore into each other with brutal character assassinations that will have delighted their political opponents.
The upshot is that the war of words between Trump and Ted Cruz - his main rival for the opening Iowa Caucus - stepped up a gear and has intensified since. Their spat threatens to dominate the race, but it remains far too early to dismiss Rubio - who launched his own blistering tirade against Cruz and looks by far the best placed to benefit from the probable demise of Bush and other so-called 'establishment' candidates.
With voting in Iowa just 15 days away and the key New Hampshire Primary one week later, we will soon know whose reputations have suffered worst from the constant blitz of attack-ads.
In terms of media storms, Cruz is getting the worst of it which probably explains his drift in the outright betting from 3.814/5 to 5.24/1 over the past week. Trump is repeatedly questioning the Canadian-born Texas Senator's eligibility for the presidency, in an echo of his 'birther' theories about President Obama.
That row has since prompted a lawsuit, and Cruz is also under fire for not properly disclosing loans for his 2012 Senate campaign. He was forced to defend himself on both matters during the debate, before another row broke out with Trump over Cruz's derisory comments regarding "New York values."
To compound matters, Rubio finished the night with a blistering assault on Cruz's consistency, trying to cement the flip-flopper brand that has destroyed so many presidential bids in the past.
Not pleasant viewing for long-term Cruz backers like myself, but so far there is no actual evidence that Cruz has been harmed. Focus group guru Frank Luntz - who UK politicos may remember as the man who first spotted David Cameron's electoral appeal in the 2005 Tory leadership race - reported Cruz the standout winner from his group of GOP primary voters in South Carolina.
In some ways, the attacks may help Cruz. These GOP voters loved his confident, humorous dismissal of the 'birther' jibes. The type of ultra-conservative voter that supports Cruz may also sympathise with his characterisation of the loan story as predictable hot air from biased liberal media sources like the New York Times.
Moreover, by throwing the first punch after months of avoiding conflict with one another, Trump has given Cruz the right to hit back hard. Now Cruz supporters are releasing details of Trump donations to Democrat politicians, and old footage of him explaining the difference between New York values and Iowa values, on core Conservative issues like abortion.
I would wager this is more damaging to Trump than his attacks on Cruz, especially in Iowa, where a win is essential for momentum. Plus in framing this as a head-to-head fight that is dominating media coverage, Cruz is well poised to pick up the substantial 'Anyone But Trump' vote. Cruz remains ahead in Iowa and, according to pollsters PPP, in far better shape to pick up transfers from declining candidates. Remember, caucus voters tend to pay far closer attention in the closing stages before deciding.
Nevertheless, wall-to-wall negative campaigning from his rivals could take it's toll on Cruz. Rubio has a fortune to spend on advertising and he too is well-placed to pick up transfers. I expect the Florida Senator to finish at least third in Iowa, positioning himself as the and main establishment pick and Trump's principal rival in New Hampshire.
Donald Trump has been making a fool out of experts for the last six months, defying predictions of his imminent demise. I've never strayed from that camp and am digging in. As layers run for cover, it's time to hold our nerve. Donald Trump will not be the GOP nominee. Back either Cruz or Rubio for that honour.
Follow me on Twitter @paulmotty and at www.politicalgambler.com
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