How I expect the 2016 Republican nomination race to play out

Donald Trump has dominated the imagination of the Republican contest in 2015, but can he turn enthusiasm into real votes in 2016? Maybe.
Donald Trump has dominated the imagination of the Republican contest in 2015, but can he turn enthusiasm into real votes in 2016? Maybe. (Facebook)

It’s not often that I write about American politics because there are already so many pundits doing it, and the comparative advantage of a website like Suffragio lies in deeper analysis of global electoral politics and foreign policy informed by that analysis. USflag

But we’re now just over three weeks away from the most competitive Republican presidential nomination contest in memory, and we’re six months into the era of TrumpismoFor what it’s worth, no one knows exactly how the spring nominating process will end because there are so many variables — and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says otherwise.

Still, we’re not on Mars and, while there are certainly new factors in 2016 that matter more than ever, there is deep precedential value from prior contests.

So here’s one perspective on how the race might ultimately turn out, based on observing primary contests for over 20 years. At the most basic level, the race for the Republican nomination is a race to win a majority of the 2,470 delegates that will meet between July 18 and 21 in Cleveland, Ohio. 

February 1
Iowa caucuses: 30 delegates (proportional)

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who vaunted to the top of Iowa's polls over the summer, still hopes the caucuses will propel him to victory. (Facebook)
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who vaunted to the top of Iowa’s polls over the summer, still hopes the caucuses will propel him to victory. (Facebook)

Right now, it seems like Iowa will come down to Trump, Texas senator Ted Cruz and some third person (and, indeed, maybe not in this order).iowa flag

If that third person is Ben Carson, it will be a sign that the ‘outsider’ candidates really have struck a chord with voters. Less charitably, it might also be a sign that the Republican Party should rethink for future presidential contests the massive power it has given to Iowa.

But remember: to win the Iowa caucuses, you have to convince voters to attend an hours-long meeting and actively defend their choice to others. This benefits sober-minded candidates more than the past Iowa record suggests. Though a strong evangelical presence delivered narrow victories for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012 (24.5%) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 (34.4%), those were very narrow wins based on pluralities of the caucus electorate.

Iowa’s caucuses also benefit candidates who have campaigned extensively throughout the state and campaigns with solid ground games. That’s why Cruz’s lead seems so much more reliable than Trump’s lead — it’s based on a truly impressive Iowa operation (though Trump’s campaign is more data-driven than is generally given credit).

It’s still early, and Trump has only started spending money on television ads. But he’s already started making noises about Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency because Cruz was born in Canada to a naturalized Cuban-American father. It’s not hard to imagine that Trump, given his demagoguery on Mexican immigration and Muslim refugees, could use Cruz’s Cuban heritage as a cudgel against him. Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, fled Cuba before Fidel Castro’s rise to power and, indeed, even fought for the Cuban revolution. Trump might use those facts to paint Cruz as a Castro-influenced Manchurian candidate who will ‘cave’ to the Castros, just like he believes the Obama administration has done. For good measure, Trump might also argue that Cruz’s Cuban heritage means he will cave on immigration, too. It wouldn’t be surprising if Trump demanded Cruz take a loyalty oath — it’s happened before in American history.

But a deluge of negative television advertising could sway Iowa either against Trump or Cruz or both (as it did in 1996 against Steve Forbes).

One problem for Cruz is the chance that Christian conservatives could split among him and Carson, as well as Huckabee and Santorum, both of whom are running hard here again in 2016. Evangelicals, for what it’s worth, do not particularly seem to like Trump, his meanness or his lack of humility, and that could continue to hurt him throughout the Bible Belt if he remains in the race deep into the calendar.

February 8
New Hampshire primary
: 30 delegates (proportional)

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has staked his presidential hopes on New Hampshire. (Facebook)
New Jersey governor Chris Christie has staked his presidential hopes on New Hampshire. (Facebook)

If the third person in Iowa’s top three is one of the major contenders who are currently experienced officeholders (I’ll call them the Grown-Ups) — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Ohio governor John Kasich or Florida senator Marco Rubio — and that third person places in the top three in New Hampshire, it sure seems like the Republican Party will have settled its Grown-Up choice.new hampshire flag

Right now, Christie is rising in the polls, thanks perhaps to his dogged campaigning across the Granite State and a powerful plea for more compassion for how government and society treat drug addicts, an important issue to rural voters in New Hampshire and Vermont. But Kasich, Bush and Rubio are all treading water as well.

If Arizona senator John McCain, the 2008 nominee who won both the 2000 and 2008 primaries decides to endorse a new candidate (he previously backed South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham), it could lift his choice to the top of the Grown-Up heap, given McCain’s enduring popularity in the state. Bonus momentum if you’re second in Iowa and you relegate Trump to third place in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

A quick note about Trump. It’s true that he’s tapped into the id of a certain segment of the Republican electorate that’s anxious about the changing character of American life — a society that’s going from predominantly white and Christian to something much more multicultural. Economic stagnation among the working and middle classes doesn’t help this dynamic. But when a campaign is all about being a ‘winner,’ the veneer wears off quickly as real voting begins and you’re not actually winning. In retrospect, across American history, the threat from racist populism from Strom Thurmond to George Wallace and other figures always seemed far greater before voting began.

I’ve always thought it would be relatively easy to bring Trump’s numbers down, not by calling him a bigot or highlighting his lack of experience for the office, but by turning his slogan ‘Make American Great Again,’ against him and appealing to American patriotism, a peculiarly odd brand of nationalism infused with the liberal 18th century values that made the United States so extraordinary upon its founding. Why, for example, is Trump’s campaign centered on the idea that the United States is no longer great? His slogan trash-talks American greatness; it’s one big dis against a country that, for all its flaws, still exemplifies greatness in many ways. That he boasts about some nice words from Russian president Vladimir Putin makes it even clearer. There’s more than enough material for a skilled campaign to weave a narrative that Trump’s brand of politics is unpatriotic and ‘un-American.’ With $100 million in ads, you could turn The Donald into an anti-American, pro-Russian stoodge about as popular with the right as Saul Alinsky.

February 20
South Carolina primary
: 50 delegates

South Carolina has always been fertile ground for the Bush family in the past, but it's not clear that former Florida governor Jeb Bush can make it to February 20 as a viable nominee. (Facebook)
South Carolina has always been fertile ground for the Bush family in the past, but it’s not clear that former Florida governor Jeb Bush can make it to February 20 as a viable nominee. (Facebook)

If a Grown-Up consensus pick emerges, that Grown-Up will then have so much momentum going into South Carolina, it will spin heads.south carolina flag

Think, for example, about how quickly the entire Democratic party apparatus lined up behind John Kerry in the 2004 race after Iowa and New Hampshire. Republicans, especially the party donors and, I am convinced, most of its voters, know they want to win in 2016, not just Feel all the Feels. Though you can make a case for both Trump and Cruz against Hillary Clinton in 2016, neither Trump nor Cruz gives Republicans the best chance at victory. In short, Cruz scares moderates and Trump scares everyone.

A lot of commentators argue South Carolina is the ultimate tea-party state (John C. Calhoun, Fort Sumter and all that) and, accordingly, fertile ground for Trump and Cruz. But it’s a veteran-heavy state that’s fairly pro-establishment: it delivered for Ronald Reagan in 1980, for George H.W. Bush in 1988, for Bob Dole in 1996, for George W. Bush in 2000 and for McCain in 2008. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, it’s true, defeated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012. So it’s not an iron rule. But in South Carolina, too, endorsements from McCain, Graham or Romney would go a long way for an emerging Grown-Up consensus pick.

If Iowa and New Hampshire split, or if Carson’s the third candidate of Iowa’s top three, it will be South Carolina (and not New Hampshire) that effectively determines the Grown-Up consensus pick. In any event, by the time South Carolina votes, the Grown-Up race will be winnowed to the two most viable. It’s hard to see Bush stumbling through the race if he falls to a humiliating sixth or seventh place in New Hampshire. A four-way race among Trump, Cruz and two of the Grown-Ups could still leave Trump and Cruz in first and second place. But South Carolina should mark the last time that the “establishment” remains divided.

February 23
Nevada caucuses
30 delegates (proportional)

Florida senator Marco Rubio may hold out for a victory in Nevada's caucuses, with hopes high that Mormon and Latino voters will deliver. (Facebook)
Florida senator Marco Rubio may hold out for a victory in Nevada’s caucuses, with hopes high that Mormon and Latino voters will deliver. (Facebook)

If Nevada’s caucuses were three days before South Carolina, they would matter a lot more. Trump likes to think that he will do well here because of his business presence in Las Vegas. More likely, though, he’d do well here because of disillusion from high unemployment and one of the worst housing recessions of any US state.nevada flag

Sheldon Adelson, if he decides to back a candidate like he did for Gingrich in 2012, could materially change the race. For now, it seems like he wants to wait until after a nominee is chosen to make a major political investment in 2016. But he’s said a lot of kind things about Rubio.

March 1: Super Tuesday
Texas primary:
155 delegates (proportional)
Georgia primary:
76 delegates (proportional)
Tennessee primary: 58 delegates (proportional)
Alabama primary: 50 delegates (proportional)
Virginia primary: 49 delegates (proportional)
Oklahoma primary: 43 delegates (proportional)
Massachusetts primary: 42 delegates (proportional)
Arkansas primary: 40 delegates (proportional)
Minnesota caucuses: 38 delegates (proportional)
Colorado caucuses: 37 delegates (proportional)
Wyoming caucuses:
29 delegates (unbound)
Alaska caucuses: 28 delegates (proportional)
North Dakota caucuses: 28 delegates (unbound)
Vermont primary: 16 delegates (proportional)

If Texas senator Ted Cruz has any chance of winning the nomination, it will come thanks to Super Tuesday. (Facebook)
If Texas senator Ted Cruz has any chance of winning the nomination, it will come thanks to Super Tuesday. (Facebook)

By this point, the race will be whittled down to Trump, Cruz and the sole remaining Grown-Up. Now the prior dynamic flips — Trump and Cruz will be competing for many of the same ‘outsider’ voters, while the Grown-Up candidate can consolidated so-called ‘establishment’ support.virginia flag massachusetts flagtexas flag georgia tennessee flag

Super Tuesday has also been called the ‘SEC Primary,’ but two of the day’s important prizes are Massachusetts and Virginia, where the Grown-Up will be a favorite in a three-way race against Trump and Cruz. Still, with Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and other Southern states holding primaries on March 1, Trump or Cruz could easily win a big chunk of the day’s delegates.

A quick note about outsiders and insiders. The distinction between ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ candidates has always been much messier than pundits portray. There are now many ‘establishments’ within the Republican Party, and Cruz is just as much an ‘insider’ with some of them (evangelical groups, certain conservative organizations) as Bush is to others (K Street and wealthy donors). Think of the difference between ‘Cato conservatives’ and ‘Heritage conservatives.’

If former Texas governor Rick Perry, for instance, endorses Cruz, which is certainly a possibility, does that make him more of an outsider or an insider? Cruz now looks much more electable after the Trump surge of 2015, because he seems less of a risk, comparatively, than a Trump nomination. Moreover, he is one of the few 2016 contenders talented enough to portray a crusading outsider while also feigning just moderate enough (on gay rights or foreign policy, for example) to convince traditional elites he can be a credible general election contender. That’s a hard hoop to jump through for such a right-wing figure, even for a politician as talented as Cruz, who almost single-handedly shut down the US government in 2013. Compared to the Grown-Up choice, Cruz (who seems universally despised by his Senate colleagues and other party officials) is more likely to fall into the ‘conservative runner-up’ category.

A note about the Democratic race. By March 1, Clinton will almost certainly become the presumptive Democratic nominee. She might not have enough delegates to clinch the nomination, but a clean (or near-clean) sweep against Vermont senator Bernie Sanders will mean that she’s now ready to pivot to general election mode. That, too, will concentrate minds about the ultimate electability of Trump or Cruz.

Sanders may still continue his campaign, but after New Hampshire (where independents will have to choose between voting in two primaries, depriving him of a typically anti-establishment bloc of voters and making even that friendly contest more difficult), there will be no more magazine covers, no more headlines and little hope that Sanders is the Obama of 2016.

Clinton could become sick, or the FBI might actually pursue charges against her for divulging classified information as US secretary of state by using her own private e-mail server. But that’s very unlikely.

March 5
Louisiana primary: 37 delegates (proportional)
Kentucky caucuses: 45 delegates (proportional)
Kansas caucuses: 40 delegates (proportional)
Maine caucuses: 23 delegates (proportional)

March 8
Michigan primary: 
59 delegates (proportional)
Mississippi primary: 40 delegates (proportional)
Idaho primary: 32 delegates (proportional)
Hawaii caucuses: 19 delegates (proportional)

The previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary in both 2008 and 2012. (Facebook)
The previous Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary in both 2008 and 2012. (Facebook)

There are many primaries and caucuses between March 1 and March 15, but the big prize between the two days is Michigan.michigan flag

You’d think it would be favorable to a candidate like Trump, who will say all sorts of nasty things about free trade and foreign workers and all sorts of nice things about bringing back manufacturing jobs. But McCain defeated Bush here in 2000, and Romney (whose father was a former, well-liked governor) won in both 2008 and 2012, holding off what seemed like serious challenges from McCain and Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. Advantage, however slight, to the Grown-Up in 2016.

March 15: Junior Tuesday
Florida primary: 
99 delegates (winner-take-all)
North Carolina primary: 72 delegates (proportional)
Illinois primary: 69 delegates (winner-take-all)
Ohio primary: 66 delegates (winner-take-all)
Missouri primary: 52 delegates (proportional)

If he doesn't catch fire in the early states, popular two-term Ohio governor John Kasich can give another candidate a boost across the Midwest. (Facebook)
If he doesn’t catch fire in the early states, popular two-term Ohio governor John Kasich can give another candidate a boost across the Midwest. (Facebook)

After Super Tuesday, this day will be the most important of the month. Although there’s still a lot of Southern voting in the mix, the balance begins to shift.north carolina flag illinois flagflorida flagohio

North Carolina and Missouri, yes, but the Grown-Up will have a built-in advantage in Illinois, Florida, and Ohio (and the latter two are winner-take-all states, in terms of delegates). The Grown-Up will, by March 15, have common cause with the  other Grown-Ups, now withdrawn from the race, so a Bush or Rubio endorsement could help in Florida and a Kasich nod could help in Ohio. Bruce Rauner, as prudent an insider-outsider as you can imagine (or, to put it another way, a successful version of Carly Fiorina with a Y-chromosome), could help the Grown-Up in Illinois.

March 22
Arizona primary:
58 delegates (winner-take-all)
Utah primary: 40 delegates (proportional).

The GOP's 2008 nominee, the hawkish, blunt-talking John McCain, could make a difference in the Arizona primary. (Facebook)
The GOP’s 2008 nominee, the hawkish, blunt-talking John McCain, could make a difference in the Arizona primary. (Facebook)

Not a lot of delegates here, but McCain and Romney will play instrumental roles in boosting the Grown-Up to potential victories in some social conservative states.utah flag arizona flag

That could make the party’s eventual unification a lot easier.

April 5
Wisconsin primary: 42 delegates (winner-take-all)

walker
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who dropped out of the presidential race in 2015, could be a crucial anti-Trump, anti-Cruz voice in his home state’s primary. (Facebook)

The last gasp of the mythical ‘blue collar’ appeal that Trump (if he’s still spending money) or Cruz might hope to win is the Wisconsin primary.wisconsin flag

Again, populist challenges from Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 ultimately proved less difficult than anticipated. The Grown-Up here, too, will have Scott Walker’s full support.

April 19
New York primary:
95 delegates (proportional)

By the time New York Republicans vote, it is likely that a nominee (named neither Trump nor Cruz) will have emerged with enough delegates to start pivoting against New York's former senator, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. (Facebook)
By the time New York Republicans vote, it is likely that a nominee (named neither Trump nor Cruz) will have emerged with enough delegates to start pivoting against New York’s former senator, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. (Facebook)

It’s not a winner-take-all state, and April and May will bring important votes in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Washington, while voting ends with a bang on June 7 in California, New Jersey and elsewhere.new york flag

But it’s this primary that could put the final nail in the coffin of the Trump and Cruz challenges. Though New York may indeed the town that made Trump ‘Trump,’ the Grown-Up, by this point, will have a credibility advantage over Trump and a financial advantage over Cruz in a state that elected George Pataki governor thrice and likes its Republicans with a dash of flinty patrician.

Yes, it’s true that tea-party favorite Carl Paladino thrashed Rick Lazio for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010, but his experience in the general election (a 30-point loss to Andrew Cuomo) will be instructive here. Romney easily won the New York primary in 2012 with over 62% of the vote, and McCain won nearly 50% here in 2008.

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