Now that the first votes of the primary season have been cast, let’s see where we stand.
When this process began, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus predicted a nominee would be determined by the end of March. A more accurate analysis is that we may not have one until the final primaries in early June where states like California and New Jersey would play a disproportionate role in the nominating process given their blue state status. Much of this is due to the rules in each state for delegate allocation.
As a result, one needs to hold their enthusiasm in check early in this process. The primary calendar is front-loaded with states friendly to Cruz and/or Trump. As a result, they would likely be running first and second in the delegate count after the SEC primary. There is also the importance of threshold triggers to obtain delegates. A state like Texas mandates that a candidate must receive 20% of the vote to get delegates in a state that awards them proportionately under the RNC rules. For example, if Rubio gets 20% of the vote, he picks up 44 delegates; if he gets 19% of the vote, he gets none. Michigan has a triggering device where if someone gets 51% of the vote, they get all the delegates; if they get 49%, then they get roughly half of the delegates. Before anyone sees this as impossible, by the time Michigan rolls around, the field will be smaller after the SEC primary the previous week. These triggering devices and thresholds play an important role. The candidate who can best exploit the nuances of each state’s delegate allocation rules can turn this into a rout…and early. A candidate like Rubio- who the early part of the calendar does not favor- just needs to stay relatively close and relevant when the latter part of the calendar favors him.
While most eyes were on Iowa, New Hampshire may play the biggest role early. Given the time and money spent in that state by candidates like Bush, Christie and Kasich, anything less than a third place finish essentially ends their chances. Some polling indicates that at least one of them may finish third. If these polls are correct, Trump will win although a late surge by Cruz is elevating him here. If Cruz could finish second or even third, it only enhances his viability going forward. But, if Kasich and/or Bush drop out, the likely beneficiary will be Rubio. The reason is that on March 15th, both Ohio and Florida hold their primaries. A favorite son from both states may have already withdrawn by then. My best guess is that Kasich will stay on through Ohio, but Bush may pull the plug, but hold off on an endorsement.
Until we are into late March (and only Arizona, Colorado and Utah go), the game is not to necessarily amass delegates, but to win a targeted number of delegates. One should fully expect Cruz in first, Trump in second and Rubio in third as we head into April. So what are the dynamics for those three?
Cruz won the evangelical vote in Iowa. If the past is any indication, whoever wins the evangelical vote in Iowa usually wins it in other states with a large concentration. They include (on March 1st): Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. But other than Missouri a week later, the heavy concentration of evangelical voters starts to run dry. One can expect Cruz to win all these states. After that, he must then gain appeal in states with low concentrations of evangelical voters.
Where Cruz can change the dynamics are in states like Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and Ohio. Ironically, they are also key states in the general election. A Cruz victory in Ohio would likely catapult him above and beyond those targets and there may be no stopping him from there.
For Trump, he seems to be drawing support from all segments, but excels with non-college degree Republicans. In the early part of the calendar those states are Arizona and Nevada. But, he needs a first place finish in Wisconsin (April 5th) and good performances in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Tennessee. That will be tough given the fact that Cruz holds an edge in both Oklahoma and Tennessee. If Rubio or anyone else can sneak by Trump in these states into second place, then Trump’s chances are decidedly lower. It may be over for Trump by time states like New York place on the calendar
As for Rubio, the calendar is stacked against him early, but help arrives on March 15 in the form of Florida, Ohio, Illinois and even North Carolina. Much depends on whether Kasich and/or Bush are around by then. Their supporters would likely drift to Rubio if either pulls out. We can laugh about the dearth of Kasich/Bush supporters, but they could make a difference in these states. And Rubio would not necessarily have to win all four to stay viable provided he hangs close earlier.
So what are my predictions going forward? I expect Trump to win New Hampshire with Rubio second and Cruz third. The Rubio finish will convince one of the following to drop out: Bush, Kasich or Christie. Each has basically invested their political fortunes on besting Rubio here. In South Carolina, although they have a large evangelical population, they tend to vote more pragmatically than other states in that category. That would seem to benefit Rubio. If he manages to finish second here ahead of either Cruz or Trump (or even in first), that could send a strong signal to other such states.
In the SEC primary, in 2008 Georgia was a photo finish and that may happen here again in 2016. After South Carolina, one would expect Georgia to be the focus of attention. Virginia, also voting on March 1st, has a demographic that slightly favors Rubio. The big prize on March 8th is Michigan followed by delegate rich states like North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Illinois the following week. After March 15th, we should have some indication of where this race is going. April is kind of light with Wisconsin early, but states that favor either Trump or Rubio at the end of the month.
The only path for Cruz to the nomination is to perform incredibly better than expectations early. Although that would defuse Trump, it would not eliminate Rubio. Should Trump drop out due to declining support from voters (I don’t see that egotistical maniac dropping out), then it is Rubio versus Cruz with the calendar and demographics favoring Rubio.
Note: Please do not cite polls from January showing Cruz winning in California, especially from an unreliable polling company.