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:
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|
- 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.