Princeton Election Consortium

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The GOP’s deadline problem

February 11th, 2016, 3:31pm by Sam Wang

Given the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as national polls, if the Republican front-runner were a more conventional candidate we would be writing about near-inevitability. Donald Trump is in a very similar position to Mitt Romney’s at this point in 2012 – if anything, a somewhat stronger position. In 2012 Romney lagged at various points to other candidates. For Trump, this has not happened since he entered the race.

Nonetheless, what would it take for Trump to fail to get the nomination?

With the Republican field so divided after New Hampshire, the path for anyone other than Trump requires nearly all candidates to drop out. Multiple candidates want that to happen. For example, Ted Cruz thinks it is time to unite around one candidate: Ted Cruz. And so on. However, after getting 3 or 4 convention delegates each on Tuesday, Cruz, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio all have reasons to stay in. Under these conditions, Trump wins.

Many political journalists have a wrong understanding of the early-state delegate process. It is not proportional at all, but what I call pseudo-proportional. As suggested by my computational simulation of the delegate process [the code is here], in a field of four candidates, an average-across-states vote share of 30% is enough to get 50% of delegates through Super Tuesday. That’s an average: the winner could get 20% of the vote in Texas and 40% in Georgia, and so on. Donald Trump is well on track for this scenario: he won 24% of the vote in Iowa and 35% in New Hampshire. As of today, he is at 36% in national surveys.

The not-Trump scenario occurs if Republicans cull their field, fast. As far as I can tell, if Republicans want a candidate who is acceptable to most of their party to get a majority of convention delegates, their deadlines are:

  • Deadline 1 (February 29th): Get down to two alternatives to Donald Trump as a consequence of South Carolina and Nevada – and before voting starts on Super Tuesday, March 1st.
  • Deadline 2 (March 14th): Settle on one alternative to Trump as a consequence of Super Tuesday and the March 5th-12th primaries.

For example, the first of these deadlines can be met if the South Carolina and Nevada primaries knock out three of the following four: Bush, Kasich, Rubio, and Carson. (I’m assuming that at a minimum, Cruz is in through Super Tuesday.)

If these drop-dead dates aren’t met, Trump could still be stopped, but it would be difficult. First, it would require somebody other than Trump to take the popular lead in April. In a three-way race, that is hard to imagine. Even in a two-way race, it is not at all clear that Trump will lose, since for now, he picks up enough “Establishment” support in head-to-head matchups to get a majority. Consistent with this, exit polls in New Hampshire show that some Republicans of all stripes like Trump.

To understand the details, let’s get into the weeds of the delegate process.

Look at the rightmost column of The Green Papers table showing the timetable of cumulative delegates, including links to the delegate-selection rules. The basic principles are (a) state GOP rules are seldom truly proportional, evading a mandate from the national party; and (b) all delegates (including party officials, who used to have more discretion) are required to vote for their assigned candidate on the first ballot. Basically, state parties created loopholes to tilt the balance toward the front-runner, while giving the appearance of proportionality. This may have been to give themselves more leverage. National rules say delegates who don’t vote for their candidate on the first ballot risk getting their credentials stripped. These two principles have painted the GOP into a corner.

The closest that state contests get to proportional is now through March 8th. But as I have mentioned, these races are pseudo-proportional. For example, in New Hampshire, Donald Trump won 36% of the vote but got 43% of the delegates. In South Carolina, I estimate that a 37% vote share would get him over 90% of the delegates.

On Super Tuesday on March 1, 25 percent of all delegates are assigned, mostly pseudo-proportionally. On March 5-12, races are pseudo-proportional for an additional 9 percent of delegates.

After March 12th, things get even better for the front-runner, whoever it is. On March 15th, three states are either winner-take-all (Florida and Ohio) or winner-take-nearly-all (Missouri) for another 9 percent of delegates. Anti-Trump forces would be well advised to get down to one alternative before then. However, that would require Ohioan John Kasich and/or Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to get themselves down to one candidate within the coming four weeks. In a tragedy of the commons, driven in part by super-PAC money which is not attached to the Republican Party, such self-elimination looks unlikely.

If Trump gets over 50% of delegates through Super Tuesday, Republican operatives are likely to fall into line and support him. They are already doing that, if Bob Dole’s words are any indication. Ballpark, I would guess that if Trump has a majority of delegates by March 1st and he still has two opponents afterward, his probability of securing the nomination will be about 80%. However, this is now my intuition talking.

If nobody has a clear majority by mid-March, how long will the process likely drag on? Last week Ben Ginsberg (the Bush/Cheney campaign lawyer) said in a presentation at the Stanford Law School that in past years, a presumptive nominee emerges around the time that 68% to 71% of all delegates are assigned. In 2016, that happens on April 19th with the New York primary. Since votes are votes (i.e. they count whether for the Establishment or for a strange entity like Donald Trump), we should know by then.

Tags: 2016 Election

28 Comments so far ↓

  • MAT

    Just to really throw a wrinkle into this, I was listening to the Steele & Ungar show on the SiriusXM Potus channel. They had a long discussion about GOP convention rules with another guest. The gist of the talk was that all the existing rules governing the primaries, delegate binding, etc…. expire at the *start* of the convention. The set of rules used for actually nominating the candidate are adopted at the beginning of the convention and these could literally be anything the delegates voted for.

    The reason I thought this was important was that the ‘Steele’ in the show is Michael Steele, formerly the head of the RNC. Supposedly he would know what he is talking about.

    The scenario they were painting was that different state parties have different rules about who is assigned as delegates to the national conventions. Some allow the candidates to pick the delegates, others simply bind delegates to a candidate. But these delegates are not bound to vote for any particular set of rules. So the convention at large could ‘unbind’ all of the delegates prior to the first ballot.

    With a Trump in front, this action, of course, would undoubtedly lead to Trump exiting and doing a 3rd party run. But the party might determine that is a better option than having him represent the GOP, particularly if that is seen as having a negative impact on Senate races, with given the Scalia situation is going to be hot, indeed.

    I’ve been trying to find a recording – it was on around 11am EST on 2/13, if anyone else can find it.

    • 538 Refugee

      Changing the rules that governed the primaries would potentially be the start of the end of the Republican Party. It would make a sham out of the whole primary process. I don’t see this happening.

    • MAT

      538 Refugee – I tend to agree, but Michael Steele, who is about as insider as you can get (or at least was), thought it was totally possible. The guy they were interviewing was a long time rules committee member.

      This from Politico – doesn’t mention first ballot rules changes, but everything else:

  • Lee

    Because people often vote strategically, there is a difference between asking someone whom he/she will vote for and asking someone whom he/she would like to see as a president. Are there any polls that ask the latter question?

    The results from such a poll would allow the candidates to form coalitions, much as in parliamentary systems when no party gets 50% of the votes. A coalition achieving greater than 50% could pick a leader, with the others bowing out. Such a representative might then have a clear shot at the nomination.

  • A New Jersey Farmer

    I’m willing to wait and see how the other candidates attack Trump in the debates. His answers are likely to be very general and they can undermine him. He has anger on his side, but he’s not a great candidate when it comes to other issues.

  • Amitabh Lath

    New SC poll, same as the old SC poll (except Kasich and Carson switch positions for last place)

  • 538 Refugee

    By chance I caught Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” tonight. The first part was pretty interesting. She interviewed Jill Lepore based on a New Yorker article she had written about polling. Well also about voting in general.

    I arrived at a home brew beer/wine tasting before the Nate Silver portion. I had to choose between him and the tasting and the tasting won. I know the first half is worth the time. I’ll probably listen to the second half tomorrow.

    • 538 Refugee

      Got around to listening to the end of this. Worth listening to the whole broadcast.

  • JayBoy2k

    “If Trump gets over 50% of delegates through Super Tuesday, Republican operatives are likely to fall into line and support him. They are already doing that, if Bob Dole’s words are any indication. Ballpark, I would guess that if Trump has a majority of delegates by March 1st and he still has two opponents afterward, his probability of securing the nomination will be about 80%. However, this is now my intuition talking. ”

    Wow, Sam March 1st is only 3 weeks away!! and amazingly enough, I think I agree with you. Dole is really making the point that he REALLY detests Cruz and prefers Trump. Bob is also reading the tea leaves. It is really hard to believe that Bush or Kasich really have a path in this anti-politician climate.
    That leaves Rubio as the last, best establishment hope. This should be about which Republican has the best chance to beat Hillary/Sanders AND can win the Nomination.
    I think Trump – Rubio as last men standing is betting the favorites. Trump and Cruz share a clump of voters.

  • Olav Grinde

    I see another possible scenario – although I very much doubt it will win applause on this forum:

    After Super-Tuesday, Ted Cruz does the math and realizes that he cannot win. Then he does what no one would expect: Cruz drops out of the race and endorses Donald Trump.

    Shock and chaos!

    Trump goes on to win state after state, and a few weeks later he has won enough delegates to secure the nomination. Especially since Ted Cruz’s delegates will be voting for him.

    At the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump announces his running mate. Lo and behold, it’s Ted Cruz!

    • Amitabh Lath

      You are scaring me Olav. I was wondering why Cruz had not attacked Trump more vociferously and called him out as a godless hedonistic sybarite. Now we know.

    • Olav Grinde

      Well, Ted Cruz is ever the brilliant opportunist. And what is more natural than two people who are “always looking out for No. 1” to find each other?

      Nixon joked about Spiro Agnew being his life-insurance policy. I would not be surprised if Donald Trump may have similar thoughts regarding Ted Cruz.

    • Matt McIrvin

      I’d almost look forward to it to see how Trump explains what convinced him that Ted Cruz is a natural-born citizen.

  • Semilog

    Prisoner’s dilemma!

  • George Phillies

    A few issues here

    “: Settle on one alternative to Trump as a consequence of Super Tuesday and the March 5th-12th primaries.” That appears to requrie that Cruz drops out or is the choice…neither of these sounds to be easy.

    ” If they are lucky, Bush wins. If they are unlikely, it is a contested convention and there’s a schism in the party.” It is not quite obvious how Trump can lose without there being a schism between Trump supporters and the establishment.

  • C.S.Strowbridge

    Rubio Crashes in South Carolina and instead of getting a reboot, he drops out.

    Kasich returns to earth after New Hampshire, gets 3% of the vote in South Carolina and drops out.

    We are down to Trump, Cruz, Bush, and Carson. (Gilmore doesn’t drop out, because if he doesn’t drop out after Iowa, nothing will make him drop out.)

    Carson hurts Trump and Cruz enough for Bush to climb into second place in the delegates race during Super Tuesday. Cruz sinks to third and drops out. Carson sticks around to sell books for a little while, but

    Trump vs. Bush. The Establishment put all of their power into Bush. If they are lucky, Bush wins. If they are unlikely, it is a contested convention and there’s a schism in the party.

    • Kevin

      This is a recipe for a Trump nomination for sure.

    • Amitabh Lath

      Candidates don’t drop out, they run out of money and “suspend”. Bush, Rubio, Kasich campaigns were built to survive until March 15 to get to the Florida and Ohio primaries. Carson also has a lot of money, got 9% in IA and 2% in NH so may not have much effect going forward.

      As Ezra Klein wrote it is a classic Tragedy of the Commons. It is no one’s individual interest to drop out, although it would be a collective good.

    • Chip

      “Kasich returns to earth after New Hampshire, gets 3% of the vote in South Carolina and drops out.”

      The SC primary is 2/20. Kasich has no reason to drop out before 3/15.

      Ohio is a large winner-take-all state. Kasich is close to a lock to winning those 66 delegates on March 15th.

      If there an possibility of a floor fight, this makes him a contender as consensus candidate. More likely, it makes him a guaranteed power broker at the convention (and on the shortlist as VP choice).

      So there’s not much reason for Kasich to drop out after SC, no matter how poorly he does there.

  • Amitabh Lath

    The Republican primaries in Ohio and Florida are on March 15. Bush, Rubio are unlikely to leave before Florida, and Kasich may well stay in until Ohio if he pulls some of the Christie support and gets above the 1-2% he has been polling at.

    That blows both your deadlines.

    • Kevin

      Kasich could win Ohio and still be far behind–but why drop out after winning Ohio? At some point it becomes an audition for VP or the cabinet.

    • Frank

      You’re right — now I can’t imagine either Bush or Rubio suspend before Florida. That is both of their state, after all. And since their fight with one another has become personal, it would be humiliating for either man to suspend before battling the other in their home state. And as you also pointed out, Bush and Rubio are both very well funded.

      So according to Prof Wang’s deadlines, the GOP establishment fighting among themselves is making the outlook very favorable for Trump.

  • Matt McIrvin

    The establishment Republicans seem to be hanging onto this image Trump’s cultivated of himself as a “deal-maker” to convince themselves they can work with him.

    The thing is, Trump’s claim is that he always gets the best deals, meaning, the ones most favorable to him. Not sure that should be comforting to the people he’d be negotiating with.

    • Paul

      The amusing thing about Trump “always getting the best deals”. Someone calculated what his net worth would be if he invested all of his inheritance in an index fund, and determined he would be richer now than the cumulation of all of his deals over 50 years.