24 February 2016

Nevada GOP Caucus Redux And The Prospects For The Race To Come

What Happened in Nevada?

Not only did Trump win Nevada's contest for delegates in his quest for the GOP Presidential nomination, he got more voters than number two Rubio, and number three Cruz, combined.

Carson's fourth place share continued to shrink despite the fact that he had early support among conservatives in Western States.  Someday, he may realize that his Presidential campaign is pyrrhic and drop out, but if there is anything that Carson excels at, it is his ability to ignore reality.  So, I wouldn't count on him formally dropping out anytime soon, even though he has never placed better than 4th place in any of the first four states and his share of the votes that he has received continues to dwindle.  He's probably still in until he runs out of money.

Kaisch made a dismal fifth place showing, receiving no boost at all from his second place finish in New Hampshire or the removal of relatively modern GOP candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie from the running.  Kaisch is no more than a spoiler at this point, although he may try to hang on for another week or two in the vain hope that he can pick up ground in the Midwest and Northeast.

There is no really doubt that Kaisch's campaign will last no longer than two more weeks.  And, it could very well end sooner, because Kaisch is one of the less delusional figures in the GOP field. Until now, he did have a second place finish in New Hampshire and the prospect of pickup up establishment candidate voters as others dropped out of the race to encourage him.  But, the Nevada caucus has shown clearly this isn't going to happen.  Kaisch also polls no better than 4th place in any of the Super Tuesday states.  His campaign is doomed and he is just a spoiler at this point.

Rubio has been helped by the thinning of the GOP field, leaving him as the clear choice as the candidate for the GOP establishment (since Carson and Kaisch have no hope, Cruz's history as a Senator has rubbed almost everyone he's encountered the wrong way, and Trump and Carson are also both far outside the GOP establishment).  But, Rubio's gains as the field has thinned have been surprisingly small.

Everyone else in the GOP field apparently gave up after New Hampshire without even bothering to announce that fact.

What Next?

Assuming that Carson and Kaisch are no longer relevant and will soon see the number of people voting for them dwindle accordingly even if they stay in the race (with Carson's lost votes probably spread fairly evenly among the candidates and Kaisch's lost votes going disproportionately to Rubio and secondarily to Trump) we are left with three superficially viable candidates in the GOP Presidential nomination race: Trump, Rubio and Cruz.

If Trump can command the 45% of the vote he got in Nevada in the March 1 round of Super Tuesday contests and beyond, the only way that either Rubio or Cruz can win the nomination is for one of them to drop out, or for them to deny Trump an outright majority and to secure the nomination in a brokered convention as one of them bows out and the super-delegates (just 7% of the total on the Republican side) throw their support to the other.

But, neither Rubio nor Cruz seem inclined to drop out any time soon when they have been neck and neck in the polling and actual voting for many weeks.  Cruz has actually won one of the four GOP contests so far (Iowa) and leads Rubio in national polls and Super Tuesday polls with a shot at winning a couple of states, so he is hardly inclined to quit.  Rubio is more likely to prevail in the event of a brokered convention and is seeing his support increase as other establishment candidates drop out, even though he has yet to win a state and isn't projected to do so on Super Tuesday either, so why should he quit?  Then again, Rubio may be less self-centered than Cruz and inclined to drop out in order to thwart Trump knowing that neither he nor Cruz have a real shot if one of them doesn't drop out.

Indeed, because many of the GOP primary and caucus races effectively give more than proportionate delegates to candidates who finish first. Trump got more than twice as many votes as either Rubio or Cruz in Nevada, won by comfortable margin in South Carolina, won in New Hampshire, and wasn't even that far behind in second place in Iowa.  There is every reason to think that Trump has the potential to win a majority of the GOP delegates by the time that the Republican National Convention comes around this summer, even if he doesn't win a majority of the votes cast, by finishing in first place in every single GOP contest for the foreseeable future until either Cruz or Rubio drop out of the race, which might never happen unless one or the other of them gains a decisive advantage over the other somehow.

In order for either Rubio or Cruz to win a plurality of delegates, one of them needs to start polling better than Trump on a regular basis, which at the moment seems to be an almost unattainable goal.

And, even for either Rubio and Cruz to deny Trump a majority so that they can make their cases to a brokered Republican National Convention, they need to collectively push Trump down to something more like the 33% of the vote that Trump won in South Carolina, and not the 45% that Trump won in Nevada which is probably enough of a margin to win Trump a majority of the delegates due to winner takes all or at least gets more delegates rules in various states.

We'll see if the goal of holding Trump's delegate count to a plurality is a realistic one on Super Tuesday, six days from now.

If Trump is winning 45% or more of the vote on average on Super Tuesday, he's almost guaranteed to become the Republican nominee for President unless either Rubio or Cruz drop out immediately (which is unlikely, even if Trump does sweep in that fashion).

If Trump is only winning 33% of the vote or so, on average (which is what he is getting on average in recent national polls according to Real Clear Politics), and in particular, if Trump doesn't win every single one of the Super Tuesday states (which seems like a long shot but isn't impossible), there is some hope that Rubio or Cruz (realistically, Rubio) might prevail in an eventual brokers Republican convention.

Super Tuesday state polling shows Trump leading in every state except Texas (even post-Jeb's departure) and Arkansas (pre-Jeb's departure), where Cruz leads, and Colorado according to a November 2015, where Carson leads and Rubio is in second place (except that Colorado won't actually be holding a Presidential nominee vote at its caucus!).  Trump's average support is in the 30s but could improve as he picks up some of the support of minor candidates who have lost support or grown to be less viable than they seemed to be previously.

Looking Ahead To The General Election

Notably, in recent head to head polling match-ups, Trump is the least electable, with Clinton leading him by 2.8 percentage points on average.  Cruz is in between, leading Clinton by 0.8 percentage points on average.  And, Rubio is the strongest, leading Clinton by 4.7 percentage points, on average. A lot of this seems to boil down to likability.  Even many Clinton supporters don't love her and support her mostly for pragmatic reasons.

I think that the Cruz and Rubio support relative to Clinton will decline over time as people realize how conservative Cruz and Rubio are when not set off against the foil of fellow GOP Presidential candidates.  But, while it is unsurprising that Rubio is a stronger general election candidate than Cruz, it is surprising that Trump who might seem to have a more bipartisan appeal, fares worst vis-a-vis Clinton.

Defying conventional wisdom, Bernie Sanders actually does much better than Clinton in general election head to head polling.  He leads Trump and Rubio by six percentage points each, and Cruz by 4.7 percentage points.  Ordinary voters respond to passion and that is one department where Sanders is far superior to Clinton by any reasonable assessment.  But, Sanders has a challenging road ahead of him to win the Democratic party's nomination, as many outsiders have already written him off despite the fact that the actual voting on the Democratic side of the race has been nearly even, mostly because super-delegates support Clinton over Sanders 25-1 and play a much bigger role in choosing the nominee than they do on the Republican side of the process.

The Sanders edge in head to head polling extends to many head to head polls in particular states.

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