For months, most were dubious that Arkansas's participation in the so-called "SEC primary" would live up to its promise to bring the state enhanced national attention. But, the apparent closeness of the battle among the top three GOP contenders in the state, along with the Arkansas GOP's generally proportional method of allocating delegates that makes it possible for several candidates to come away with a number of delegates, makes the state a sudden electoral magnet.
Public in-state polling has been quite limited, but all signs point to a close three-way contest in Arkansas for the national frontrunners: Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. A Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College survey conducted Feb. 4 (which seems like a lifetime ago, considering the recent intensity in the GOP campaign), showed Cruz at 27 percent, with Trump and Rubio close behind at 23 percent. Several other candidates (most of whom have departed the race but are still on the ballot) trailed in single digits. Trump's success in New Hampshire and South Carolina and some coalescing of establishment Republican support behind Rubio have boosted their standing, which means a close race may now be even closer in Arkansas.
In the final 10 days before the March 1 primary, all three will have made a stop in the state showing the seriousness with which they are taking Arkansas. Rubio, fresh off a narrow second- place finish in South Carolina, arrived on Sunday to a Little Rock rally filled with those who supply the state Republican Party its resources and its leadership. Rubio will perform best in places like Pulaski, Benton and Washington counties, where establishment Republicans dominate and where education levels are highest. The endorsement by a swath of the highest-profile Arkansas elected officials in recent days — most notably Gov. Hutchinson, who endorsed him on Monday — will also buy Rubio a handful of points. Such was the case in South Carolina where exit polling indicated that Gov. Nikki Haley — with approval numbers similar to Hutchinson's among their respective state GOP electorate — helped eke Rubio into second place. But, such support is something of a double-edged sword because it also makes Rubio the newest establishment favorite in an anti-establishment year.
Cruz, on the other hand, is the candidate who is arguably the best fit for the bulk of GOP voters in the state in recent cycles. A mix of tea party types and evangelicals have fueled the GOP rise in the Obama era and many of those activists have come on board for Cruz. With the fifth-highest percentage of white evangelicals in the country, Arkansas may be the best fit for Cruz on March 1 outside of his home state of Texas and, possibly, Oklahoma. In Arkansas, the counties surrounding Pulaski County that conjoin rural life with suburbia and more rural parts of the long-GOP 3rd Congressional District should be where Cruz shows best. (Cruz signs pop up regularly on the backroads of Northwest Arkansas.) Cruz, the candidate who has spent the most time in the state, pops back for one last appeal on Friday of this week.
Finally, Trump — who arrives in Bentonville for a Saturday rally — should perform well all across the state, as he did in winning every congressional district in South Carolina. Running well with Cruz's core voters, Trump also has shown the ability to bring into the GOP primary independents with lower incomes who've rarely participated in such primaries. Fueled by Huckabee's candidacy, 228,495 voters participated in 2008's presidential primary in the state, held in early February. If turnout meets or exceeds that number, it means that GOP turnout will be growing outside of the traditional GOP enclaves of Northwest Arkansas and the Little Rock metropolitan area. Those voters' likely choice: Donald Trump.
Just as important as the competitiveness of the race is the fact that the state's mostly proportional mode of allocating delegates ensures that all three will likely win a chunk of the state's delegates. At a moment in the race where every delegate matters for making the case for a candidate's momentum, this means that every few percentage points of the vote links directly to gaining delegates — the coin of the realm in an unpredictable nomination contest.