Laying Odds on the GOP Presidential Race

Laying Odds on the GOP Presidential Race
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After following the Republican primary race for almost a year now, it’s hard to believe that we’re less than two months away from the start of voting. At the same time, it’s hard to believe we still have two months until the start of voting!

And while these things tend to shift radically at the end, sometimes in unpredictable ways, the race has taken enough shape that we can start to give meaningful analysis about the likely outcome.

So here are my thoughts on the chances of the various candidates winning the Republican nomination, in reverse order:

Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum (0 percent): Even if all the other Republican candidates were in a bus together, and that bus were struck by a meteor, not one of these candidates would be the Republican nominee. Santorum fans might note that he was in a weak position at this point in 2012, but he still didn’t win the nomination against a much weaker field.

Rand Paul (1 percent): Paul thought he had a solution to the problem that had prevented his father from capturing the nomination. After all, Ron Paul had won several caucuses in 2012, and came close to winning Iowa; Ron Paul supporters were the original folks wearing tri-cornered hats and dumping tea into the harbor. If Paul fils could move a bit closer to the center, discarding some of Paul pere’s more outlandish ideas, so the thinking went, then we could start to see the outlines of a winning coalition.

Instead, the Kentucky senator’s centrist moves were the worst of all possible worlds: He did little to gain support from mainstream Republicans, while alienating supporters of Ron Paul, for whom the candidate’s strong adherence to principle was a feature rather than a bug. It’s conceivable that Paul, who had a strong performance in the last GOP debate, could benefit from a last-minute surge in Iowa, but his odds look awfully long right now.

Mike Huckabee (1 percent): I’ll admit I am a bit surprised by how poorly Huckabee has fared this time around. He checks off a lot of the boxes needed for a strong showing in Iowa, and he won the caucuses in 2008 (by one of the widest margins in the past 40 years). He’s arguably the most talented politician in the field and has a good way of connecting with voters. But it seems like 2008 was probably his year, and this time around there are just more candidates with similar backgrounds but fresher faces. Like Paul, he can make a credible case for a last-minute surge, but it doesn’t seem terribly likely at this point.

Carly Fiorina (2 percent): There was a moment at the beginning of the process where it looked like Fiorina could really contend for the nomination. But after dominating the first undercard debate and doing well in the subsequent mainstage event, she found it difficult to capitalize on her momentum, and her standing in the polls has dropped. One can see a potential bounce-back if she has more strong debate performances, but it seems like she peaked too soon.

John Kasich (2 percent): Every cycle, one Republican candidate decides to run with what I call the “McCain ’00” strategy: the maverick-y outsider who isn’t afraid to speak hard truths to the power brokers in the party. It’s a bit puzzling, because it didn’t work for McCain in 2000, and the party as a whole has much less appetite for maverick-y outsider truth-tellers than it did in that year (witness the fate of Jon Huntsman in 2012).

This year’s McCain seems to be Kasich, who, despite being possessed of fairly solid conservative bona fides, seems intent on running as a moderate critic of the base. Kasich made a substantial initial ad buy in New Hampshire that had him in second place during the late summer, but he’s since faded to fifth place. Perhaps he can survive through the early states and make a late delegate push (Ohio is winner-take-all), but that is unlikely.

Ben Carson (3 percent): It’s hard to believe that just a month ago, the retired neurosurgeon looked like a legitimate threat to knock Donald Trump off of his perch. As of late October, Carson led Trump by nine points in Iowa, and was in a solid second place in New Hampshire. He’s since fallen to third place in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. What’s interesting is that there didn’t seem to be any particular event to precipitate this (though some stumbles on the foreign policy front since the Paris terrorist attacks haven’t helped); Carson’s campaign has just been puttering along, doing the same thing for most of the cycle. Of course, he could have a second wind, but for now his trajectory is decidedly downward.

Jeb Bush (5 percent): I’ve never been a big believer in Bush ’16. If one thinks of the core non-ideological GOP critiques of Hillary Clinton – too old; too much of an insider; famous family name; too long in politics – a Jeb Bush candidacy would effectively neutralize most of them for her. More importantly, Bush last ran a competitive campaign when Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” topped the charts (if you don’t want to characterize his 2002 race as competitive, then it would be Monica’s “The First Night” in 1998). Political skills atrophy over time, and the issue matrix has shifted so radically since Bush’s prior runs that it wasn’t clear how well his early riffs and tics would translate to 2015.

The answer so far is “not well.” Bush has run a decent enough campaign, but there is just little evidence of demand among Republican primary voters for him. He seems, in many ways, the perfect candidate for 2008 – that is, if his surname had been different. With that said, he has a well-funded super PAC and can make a reasonably convincing argument to his donors to keep him funded through at least the beginning of the winner-take-all states. Indeed, his surrogates are making exactly that argument. No one with the resources Bush has should be written off, but it bears emphasizing that it is only those resources that are keeping him in the game.

Chris Christie (10 percent): Christie’s campaign has been quiet for most of the cycle, to the point that some analysts wondered why he didn’t give up the game. But the New Jersey governor has had a couple of solid debates, and has seen a bit of an uptick in his New Hampshire poll numbers; he finished third in the most recent CNN survey of the Granite State. If Carson and Kasich continue to stumble, it could inure to Christie’s benefit.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Christie is probably the only other candidate running in Trump’s “lane.” That is to say, while Ted Cruz and Paul could be seen as running in the “Tea Party” lane, and Carson and Huckabee are in the “evangelical” lane, Christie is the only candidate who really has a foot in Trump’s “tough guy/strong leader” lane. He draws from a lot of the same demographics as Trump, and if the frontrunner falters down the stretch, it could work to Christie’s benefit.

Ted Cruz (15 percent) / Marco Rubio (16 percent): I’ve thought for a while that the Republican race would winnow down to these two, and so I effectively have them as a tie. I would put a thumb on the scale for Rubio, since he’ll have the most establishment support and Cruz is disliked by a number of party elders. If you look at national polling, Cruz and Rubio both have upward trajectories, and are establishing themselves as the Trump alternatives in New Hampshire and Iowa. There are still a lot of things that could complicate this – Rubio in particular could have an early state problem if Christie makes a big move in New Hampshire – but this is how things stack up now.

Donald Trump (20 percent): How can you not have the candidate who leads in the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as the most likely nominee? The answer, pretty plainly, is that you can’t. There’s no doubt that Trump is the poll leader, and his lead has been much more durable than just about anyone was willing to admit.

But I think it’s important to remember something about percentages. While Trump is still the “modal outcome” – that is, the most likely result – I still have him at only 20 percent. This is another way of saying that I think there’s an 80 percent chance that it will be someone other than him. That’s an important distinction. In fact, I think it will be Cruz or Rubio, and give the odds of Cruz/Rubio as 31 percent, quite a bit higher than Trump’s.

What could trip up the billionaire businessman? The two most likely things are these: First, his voters don’t show up. Contrary to popular opinion, Trump’s support doesn’t come from the most conservative voters; instead they tend to be moderate-to-liberal. They are disproportionately not college educated, and are disproportionately young. In other words, they fit the profile of non-voters. Now, a lot was written about Barack Obama’s problems with non-voters, and those problems rather spectacularly failed to materialize. But it’s still an issue for Trump to confront.

Second, most polls show that Trump is the first choice of a plurality of voters, but has a difficult time expanding that to second- and third-choices. In other words, we really do have good evidence that there is a ceiling to his support. If the field winnows quickly, Trump will probably have problems.

No One (25 percent): My most likely scenario is still that no one wins a sufficient number of delegates to claim the nomination. As Nate Silver lays it out, this comes in three different “flavors”: (1) No one wins, but someone is close enough that the writing is on the wall; (2) no one wins, but things get sorted out at the convention; (3) no one wins, and it is fought out on the convention floor. I agree with Silver that these are presented in decreasing order of likelihood, and actually put the overall percentages lower than he did (and lower than I did last winter).

But I still think there’s a very good chance this happens, for a lot of the reasons I wrote about in January. It’s a deep field, without an overall frontrunner; super PACs can keep candidates standing past their normal expiration date; and (perhaps most importantly) the calendar creates incentives for candidates to stay in as long as they can. After the early proportional representation states is a treasure-trove of winner-take-all states, which could catapult an also-ran to first place. Again, this isn’t more likely than not to occur, but it’s still the most likely single outcome, in my book.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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