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. Look at this graph and imagine the top-to-bottom rank ordering as being the top candidates in 2012: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul. That’s where we are now. Furthermore, 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.
Most political journalists and readers 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. [Read more →]