January Rankings: Conclusion

Just four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, we have a dramatic near three-way tie among co-favorites for the Republican nomination. I’m  here to sort it out. After Parts I, II, and III, I’ve finally arrived at the top tier of the January 1 Power Rankings.

Tier 1: The Co-Favorites (previous ranks in parentheses)
3. Donald Trump (3, 6, 7)
2. Ted Cruz (2, 2, 3)
1. Marco Rubio (1, 1, 1)

For the first time in successive rankings, the top three remain consistent. That doesn’t mean, however, that nothing has changed. In October, Rubio was the only favorite. By December, Cruz who moved from 3 to 2 in November, joined Rubio as co-favorite. Now Trump, despite his ascent up these rankings having been numerically frozen for the first time, joins them. No longer just a contender, his sustained poll numbers and vow to start spending money now make him a co-favorite.

I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

Before we look at the state of their individual campaigns, let me first emphasize just how wide open this race has become. Take the oddsmakers:

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Of these three co-favorites, they’re not quite tied in the odds, but it’s close. Cruz is the weakest of the three, but he’s still a relatively strong 5:2 (he’d lose the nomination five times for every two victories), which is sometimes Trump’s odds as well. Trump is as strong as 2:1, while Rubio is as weak as 19:10, nearly the same odds if you cherry pick the oddsmaker. Rubio is never stronger than 13:8, meaning even his most favorable oddsmakers admit, as do I, that the favorite is more likely to lose against the field than to defeat it. It’s totally up for grabs. I can’t imagine odds have even been closer between three candidates on January 4. (The 2008 Republican Primary with Giuliani, McCain, and Romney is probably our closest comparison.)

And if odds go over your head, take the more user friendly PredictIt website, which is a kind of stock market for its users. As of this morning, it says Trump’s stock edges out Cruz’s 32 cents to 31, and Rubio is right behind at 30. (Bush is at 12, Christie at 8, Carson at 2, everyone else at 1 or 0.) Incredibly, the favorite of the oddsmakers is actually ranked third among PredictIt users, who are also kept honest by the fact that they have real money at stake.

What a toss-up! So why do I have them ranked as I do? Again, there’s little separating them, but . . .

Trump will lose Iowa, which hurts him heading into New Hampshire. He’ll lose Iowa because of two broad reasons. The first is that his kind of voter is traditionally not the kind of voters that shows up on primary day. I’m certainly not the only one noting that. For example, when pollsters only poll registered Republicans, Trump does abnormally well, but when they screen for voters who have voted in the past, he’s mortal.

Similarly, a certain demographic that Trump dominates is the uneducated voter — at least, uneducated in the traditional higher education sense. Of Republicans polled with a college degree, Trump polls no more impressively than the other top contenders. Of Republicans without a degree, however, he pops as all other contenders fade. Here’s FiveThirtyEight’s chart from early December polls (when Carson was a bit stronger), which amalgamated national CNN, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, and Quinnipiac polls:

BY EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT
CANDIDATE POLLING AVG. DEGREE NO DEGREE DIFFERENCE
Donald Trump 30% 19% 37% -18
Ted Cruz 18 20 16 +4
Marco Rubio 15 19 12 +7
Ben Carson 14 15 13 +2
Jeb Bush 5 5 5 0
Carly Fiorina 4 4 3 +1
Chris Christie 3 5 2 +3
Mike Huckabee 2 1 3 -2
John Kasich 2 3 1 +2
Rand Paul 2 1 1 0

Why is this relevant? Because the level of education strongly correlates to the likelihood of one voting. Now, there’s certainly a chance that Trump breaks the mold here, just like he has so many times during this election cycle. Since some people, like PPFA, have manufactured this latest explanation as to why Trump will eventually collapse, it will further galvanize his base, which is now being called traditionally disinterested and stupid. The result would be that these kinds of predictions would directly affect the result in the opposite direction if his supporters resolve to actually vote this time, if for no other reason than to stick it to the media so consistently lambasted at Trump’s speeches. Still, if we’re betting on history, these demographics make the difference in Trump’s overall polling figures, so his numbers are softer than they look.

The second reason Trump will lose Iowa is because of Ted Cruz. Whereas Trump’s numbers nationally and in later states are through the roof, in the first two states, where sober voters are more seriously picking a nominee, his numbers aren’t as strong, especially in Iowa, where Cruz holds a lead.

Not only has Cruz taken the Iowa lead through the traditional horse race polls, but he’s assembled the field’s most impressive Iowa network. One Iowa insider called it “one of the most sophisticated, if not the most sophisticated, organizational efforts this state has ever seen.” He went on to say, “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win going away.” Since this kind of proclamation meshes with exactly what I’ve been saying for a couple months now, I’m buying what he’s selling. Cruz wins Iowa, which then hurts Trump’s New Hampshire numbers and tilts some dominoes, beginning with his, “I’m a winner; I’m up in all the polls!”-centric stump speeches. Remember, the contenders are already gaining on him in New Hampshire (Trump, Rubio, CruzChristie, Kasich, Bush):

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But that’s not to say that Trump’s loyal support across the nation will totally collapse or that Cruz will end up with all his supporters. They’ll both stay in the race, keeping each others’ numbers down. As we’ll see, this is crucially important. Remember when I noted yesterday how the four establishment candidates were divvying up much of New Hampshire’s support, resulting in none of the four being able to break out? We’re seeing the same thing with the Trump/Cruz establishment base. Interestingly, Cruz and Trump, as much as they’re antiestablishment darlings, don’t pull from the same kind of antiestablishment voter. Cruz is hugely popular with evangelicals and Tea Partiers, while Trump pulls from working class Republicans and disaffected voters. Still, these groups combine to form the foremost antiestablishmentarian groups in the party. If the two candidates’ merged, they’d be unbeatable, but Trump has fanatical support from about a fifth of the party, while Cruz is running a brilliant campaign and gaining steam. If they both stay in beyond the February states, it caps the ceiling of both.

Cruz’s ranking ahead of Trump also stems from how much more mainstream he appears thanks to Trump’s boisterous fill-in-your-emotion-mongering. All the way back in July, I noted how a huge Cruz advantage was Trump’s presence as the most divisive man in the race. The colossally conservative Cruz looks orthodox by comparison, which will allow a lot of Trump supporters to rationalize moving to Cruz to keep their antiestablishment hopes alive while also allowing moderate Republicans to tolerate Cruz in order to block Trump from the nomination. Clearly, Cruz is in a good spot. Rubio might be 1 in this ranking, but Cruz is truly a 1a.

Speaking of Rubio, you might be best served just reading last month’s Power Rankings when I analyzed the “Cruz-Rubio showdown.” The arguments remain, including:

  • Main thesis: he’s the least unlikely establishment candidate. By the end of February, only one of them will be left standing.
  • Trump’s loss to Cruz in Iowa will result in also losing New Hampshire. He’ll lose New Hampshire to either Rubio, Christie, Bush, or Kasich, and that’s the order of likelihood.
  • As mentioned earlier, Trump will fade a bit, but his core supporters stand pat. Cruz will strengthen, but not like he could with Trump out of the race.
  • The establishment will eventually have their one candidate by Nevada, and the disproportionate strength of Republicans in blue states will carry him through the long fight with Cruz.
  • Rubio is the least unlikely establishment candidate because most of the party actually likes him — he has great favorables across the GOP, including with social conservatives, hawks, establishment Republicans, and even the Tea Party — and he makes a lot of sense in a general election against Hillary Clinton.

A fair question asks if being the establishment candidate will even matter, considering the towering antiestablishment wave that has drenched this Republican Primary. That’s part of the reason why, as has been made clear by the oddsmakers and this blog, Rubio is by no means a strong favorite. And yet, the establishment candidate is a favorite nonetheles. Why?

For starters, the remaining establishment candidate will finally get an unrivaled drink from the deep, primed well that is the establishment donor base and surrogacy network. I believe many Republicans — including donors, party officials, and voters — are still waiting for their candidate to naturally surface before they commit to anyone. The Trump and Cruz supporters are extremely vocal and tuned in to the race as their candidates fly high. Undecided voters will mostly break toward other options, and the main development they’re waiting for is the emergence of a clear candidate who can beat Trump and then Clinton. Donors, for example, don’t want to give a max contribution for Rubio or Bush if turns out the guy is Christie. Once that shakes out, the late undecided voter will turn to this candidate.

Secondly, there’s delegate math. Rubio — or whomever the establishment candidate is — will benefit from the Trump/Cruz split vote across the South. Of course, if one of them evaporates unusually quickly, the other can definitely go toe to toe with the establishment. Surfing that establishment wave all by oneself might be unstoppable. We can’t forget how strong each candidate is across the South and how Super Tuesday — AKA the SEC Primary this year — is southern dominated. But both Trump and Cruz will almost surely still be in the race, limiting each others’ delegate haul on that day. It’s only later in the process where only one will still be running, but that’s when the more moderate states dominate. Moreover, the Trump/Cruz supporters seem most over-represented in the south and Midwest, states that are less populated than the moderate, big business areas where Rubio, Christie, or Bush will do better and be unrivaled. When things start clicking for the remaining establishment candidate, he will quickly build up huge delegate totals.

Another argument for Rubio’s continued status as favorite is that his struggling numbers in comparison to Trump and Cruz might end up working to his advantage. Let’s not forget that performances in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have as much if not more to do with beating expectations than actually winning. Remember, Bill Clinton came in second in New Hampshire and yet still successfully labeled himself “the Comeback Kid” and wrested momentum in the 1992 Democratic Primary. If Rubio beats his lowered expectations in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, he’d get a great bounce coming out of each state, and he’d also signal to the party that’s he’s ascending at the right time. He’d be off to the races much like Clinton in ’92.

Meanwhile, the early success of Trump and Cruz have set such high expectations for themselves in Iowa and nationally that they’ll have a much more difficult time meeting those expectations than Rubio and Christie will theirs. Surges in January and February are much more meaningful than surges from the previous year. Rubio has yet to surge and has stratospheric upside, so he remains the favorite in the 2016 Republican Primary.

Barely.

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