It is that time of year. When folks have way too much leftover turkey and too many leftover visiting in-laws that seems like it will take forever to get rid of. Both of which call to mind the Republican presidential candidates — still fourteen strong with two months to go to Iowa. I have been playing around the last week with the Real Clear Politics tool on the race for delegates on the Republican side. One big caveat on the tool, it is not too good on the states that allocate congressional district delegates by congressional districts. In proportional states that allocate by congressional district (thirteen states), it tends to assume that the statewide allocation of congressional district delegates will mirror state-wide results. It will not. Depending on the state, either the top three candidates will get approximately one-third each (a close enough fourth placed candidate may steal some delegates on a district-by-district basis) or the top candidate will get approximately two-thirds of the delegates with the second-placed candidate getting one-third. In winner-take-most states (six states), the tool assumes that the number of districts won will be proportional to the state-wide results. Again, it will not. The state-wide winner should win most of the congressional districts (unless there is a good reason to think that the state-wide winner will win their districts by a large margin and narrowly lose a lot of districts). Having tried to adjust for the individual state rules, I still came to the conclusion that the Republican outcome will depend on the answer to a series of (not-quite twenty) questions.
1) How reliable is current polling. As the folks at Five Hundred Thirty-Eight have noted, a lot of primary voters make up their mind at the last minute. However, the first line question of when voters decide hides a lot more important second line questions. How many voters end up sticking with the candidate who was at the top of their list three months earlier? How many switch from their top candidate because of something that came out about that candidate that “disqualified” that candidate? How many switch from their top candidate because something they learned about one of the other candidates that made that other candidate a better “match’? How many switch from their top candidate to a more viable candidate that seems like the second best option? In 2012, we saw a lot of switching as Republicans sought an alternative to Mitt Romney who stayed steadily near the top of the polls while other candidates took their turns at the top. In other races, the leading candidates stayed near the top. Additionally, this year, the debates have gotten great viewing numbers, tending to show that voters are paying attention somewhat earlier than in the past. What the campaigns think about these questions will feed into the second question.
2) Who makes it to Iowa? A religious conservative in the early states is not going to switch to John Kasich or Chris Christie. He may switch between Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. Which candidates fall to the side between now and Iowa will impact which top contenders are at risk of losing votes to the trailing pack. It really does not matter whether George Pataki and Jim Gilmore make it to Iowa. Outside of New York and Virginia, neither is likely to get enough votes to alter the outcome. However, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Santorum getting two to three percent in some early states may make the difference as to which candidate narrowly wins the early states. At this point, I would not be surprised if Graham, Huckabee, and Santorum drop out before Iowa. With Rand Paul doing so poorly, the reason for Graham to run really does not exist. Similarly, barring something big coming out about Ted Cruz, Huckabee and Santorum are just splintering the religious conservative vote.
3) What happens to the Ben Carson vote? Carson is already starting to decline in the polls. The question is how much of Carson’s support is for an outsider (in which case it could go to Paul, Donald Trump, or Fiorina) and how much of it is for a religious conservative (in which case, Cruz is the most likely beneficiary).
4) How much of an organizational legacy do the Jeb Bush and the Paul campaign have? Some of the early states (Iowa, Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine) are caucus states in which organization matters. Bush and Paul have the advantage of some family experience in getting folks to attend the caucuses and could exceed their poll numbers in these states.
5) How long do the second tier candidates last? Some of the second tier candidates — Kasich, Christie, Paul, (probably) Bush, Fiorina, (probably) Carson — will do just well enough in February to justify continuing just a little bit longer, especially in a crowded field in which the leading candidate is only getting 23-25% of the vote. These candidates will pick up delegates here and there, but what they will really do is alter the results at the top. The longer these candidates stay in the race, the more delegates Donald Trump will win (picking up some second places in the congressional districts in states that do 2-1 splits by congressional district). The more delegates that Donald Trump gets, the harder that it will be for somebody else to get a majority of all of the delegates. At this point, I can see most of the field making it to March 1 (14 contests on the Republican side). I don’t think that many of the second tier make it much further past then. Paul will probably stay in through the March 5 Kentucky caucuses, but will have to drop out soon afterwards to focus on his reelection campaign, particularly if he has a primary challenge in the May Republican Senate Primary. The real questions will be Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, leading into question six.
6) If Bush stays in through Florida and Ohio (on March 15), does Bush take just enough votes away from Marco Rubio to allow Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to win one or both states. Florida is winner-take-all with 99 delegates up for grabs. On the same day, Ohio has sixty-three delegates up for grabs. With approximately 1,250 delegates needed to get the nomination, winning Florida and Ohio are crucial to all of the leading candidates paths to the nomination. Bush and Carson (and in Ohio, John Kasich) could be spoilers in winner-take-all and winner-take-most states if they stick around long enough (getting 10-15% of the votes, but not getting any significant number of delegates).
7) In the states that do 2-1 splits in the congressional district delegates, who finishes first and who finishes second. Of the thirteen states that allocate congressional district delegates “proportionately,” six use a 2-1 split. There are 65 congressional districts in the five southern states that vote early. Most likely, Cruz finishes first in the majority of these districts with Trump and Rubio battling for second. New York (voting in April) has twenty-seven districts in which the battle most likely will be between Trump and Rubio for first. Again, the presence of other candidates might allow Trump to finish second in a lot of congressional districts in the early-March states, making it more difficult for Rubio to get to 1,250.
8) In later winner-take-most races in moderate states, are there enough pockets of conservative republican strength to allow Cruz to win a significant number of delegates? For example, in California, there are seven R+10 districts (districts in which Republican candidate does 10% better than the national result). If my hunch is correct, and Cruz solidifies his position as the Christian conservative candidate early. He could have a 200 or so delegate lead around March 20th. While Rubio will be in a strong position to gain delegates in the later states, the more pockets of conservative strength that there are in the later states, the harder that it will be for Rubio to gain enough delegates on Cruz to put Cruz away before June.
9) How many delegates does Trump win? Unlike previous candidates, Trump has the financial ability to take his campaign all the way to the convention even if he is clearly in third place. While 20-30% of the vote is not enough for Trump to win the nomination, it is enough to get him delegates, particularly in the states that award delegates proportionately. In some early states, the threshold may limit delegates to the top three or four candidates, boosting the impact of Trump’s mid-20s percentage, giving him somewhere around 40% of the delegates. If Trump ends up with 200-300 delegates, that will make it harder for Cruz or Rubio to get to 1,250.
10) Do the early March results knock Rubio out? The normal path of the presidential nomination is for one candidate to win by the functional equivalent of a technical knock out. A candidate wins enough early states that the rest of the candidates are unable to raise enough money to compete. On the Republican side, the history has been that (except for 1980), the moderately conservative establishment candidate wins enough early states while the more conservative candidates split the votes, making it clear that the field can’t catch the front-runner as the race moves from into the moderate states that vote late. This time, it is more likely that the more extreme candidates (Ted Cruz and Donald Trump) will be the leaders after March 12. If Rubio can get the funding to stay in the race, the next ten weeks will favor Rubio and he will probably catch-up to Cruz in the delegate count around the end of May.
11) Can Cruz win? Barring Rubio being knocked out, probably not. The one race where a conservative candidate beat the establishment to get the nomination under the modern system was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan, however, had run four years earlier and was able to get over 30% even in early moderate states — getting an absolute majority in several early states. Cruz will not match Reagan’s numbers. Even in his best states, Cruz will probably not exceed 40% and will probably end up with national numbers in the lower 30s. While that will win Cruz a lot of delegates, my hunch puts Cruz with around 800-900 delegates if he maximizes his results.
12) Could there be a brokered convention? Maybe, but probably not. The route to a brokered convention assumes that Kasich, Bush, Paul, and Christie stick around long enough, but do not gain a lot of delegates. By sticking around long enough, they take votes away from (mostly) Rubio and allow Trump to gain excess delegates (by, as noted above, turning Trump’s 25% of the vote in early states into 35-40% of the delegate haul). The longer it takes Rubio to turn the race into first a three-way race between himself, Trump, and Cruz (and then into a two-way race between himself and Cruz), the less likely Rubio will be to get to 1,250 delegates., and the greater the likelihood of a brokered convention.
13) Could the Republican super delegates make the difference? The Republican rules are vastly different than the Democratic rules. Each state only has three automatic delegates (the state party chair and two RNC members). That works out to about 5% of the convention (as opposed to around 18% on the Democratic side). Additionally, some states bind their automatic delegates by the state-wide results. I do not have a firm number on how many of the automatic delegates will be free agents at the convention. Assuming that Trump gets 200+ delegates, the automatic delegates could potentially put the leading candidate between Cruz and Rubio over the top, but only if there is a clear leader between Cruz and Rubio. If the Republican race is as close as the 2008 Democratic race, there would not be enough automatic delegates to make a difference.
14) What should we be looking at to see what is happening? In the first four states, I expect Iowa to come down to Cruz vs. Trump. I expect New Hampshire to come down to Trump vs. Rubio. I expect Cruz to win South Carolina, and have no idea what to expect out of Nevada other than chaos. The issue in the early states will be whether the other candidates do well enough to justify continuing. Cruz should do well in the southern-dominated early March contests (but look to see how much of a lead he is building). The turning point of the race will be Florida, Ohio, and Arizona in mid-March. Between the three of them, they have over 200 delegates at stake, winner-take-all. If Rubio takes all three, he will be the nominee. If Cruz takes all three, Rubio might have trouble continuing. If Trump takes any of them, the likelihood of a brokered convention increases.
15) What should Democrats hope for? Trump, Carson, and Cruz lasting as long as possible, with maybe even Cruz winning. The longer that these three candidates pose a threat to Rubio (or somebody like Rubio if something dramatic happens to knock Rubio down), the more that Rubio will have to pander to the far right. The more that Rubio has to pander to the far right, the harder it will be for Rubio to pivot back to the center. While some emphasize how significant it would be for the Republicans to nominate a Latino candidate, both Cruz and Rubio are Cuban-Americans. There has been a long-time split between the Cuban-American community (which has received preferential immigration status) and other Latinos. Particularly, if getting the Republican nomination requires pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party, neither Cruz nor Rubio would significantly improve the Republican chances with minority communities.