Trump: Not Inevitable But Getting Closer

Well, Super Tuesday has come and gone, and the defining aspect of this race remains the same: Donald Trump is the overwhelming frontrunner to be the Republican nominee. That said, Senator Ted Cruz had a surprisingly strong night, carrying 3 states (TX as expected but OK and AK were a bit surprising). Senator Marco Rubio did manage a win in MN, but it otherwise was a dour night for him. Governor John Kasich nearly stole Vermont, had a 2nd in Massachusetts, and took critical votes in Virginia but was barely relevant in the South. As expected, Dr. Ben Carson barely took any delegates and is exiting the race. Here is how the delegates seemed to break (note things are not finalized and Trump could be anywhere between 240 and 260 with Cruz anywhere between 205 and 225) and updated probabilities.

st delegates

odds

As you can see, from a delegate perspective, Trump performed in-line even though I thought he would get 9 or 10 states rather than 7. His strong delegate performance was fueled by Rubio’s inability to meet thresholds in TX, VT, and AL as well as larger than expected wins in TN and GA. These factors buoyed his results despite losses in OK and AK. By missing those thresholds, Rubio fell significantly short in the delegate count, and much of his underperformance mirrors Cruz’s outperformance.

However, moving forward, Trump is clearly in the driver’s seat. I struggle mightily to see a scenario where a candidate other than Trump claims the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, though I can still see the other candidates getting enough delegates together to block Trump from getting to 1,237 (though a finish below 900 would seem very unlikely). Yes, compared to what we were expecting 72 hours ago, Cruz had a good night. However, if we were told he won 3 states 1 month ago, that would have been disappointing because it is unclear what upcoming major states Cruz can beat Trump in 1 on 1. Super Tuesday is as good as it gets for Cruz. States like NY, NJ, PA, IN, and much of CA fit Trump better, even if the race narrowed. Cruz will continue to win a fair share of delegates, but to have a credible chance, he really needed to be the delegate leader. His path to the nomination is still hard to see, apart from some deal at the convention.

Similarly, Kasich is well positioned to compete in his state of Ohio and take the 66 delegates, but getting to a majority is hard to envision and is certainly dependent on Rubio losing Florida and dropping out on the 15th (note: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). Kasich must win Ohio, and if he does, he can accumulate more delegates in the North and Midwest to help block Trump. If Rubio loses FL, he could be the last, best hope against Trump and with enough wins, get enough delegates to take the nomination in a floor fight in Cleveland. The odds are long.

That leaves us with Rubio. He is so far back in the delegate count, he will basically need to win 2/3 of the remaining delegates, which is extremely unlikely. However, upcoming states are a far better fit for him than Cruz, and he is better funded than Kasich. In the event of a contested convention, there is a very good chance he is the nominee. However, his home state of Florida is a must-win for him, and polling shows him at least 10% behind. Early voting is also showing a substantial number of new voters, which is a positive for Trump. Losing those 99 delegates to Trump (it is winner take all) would give Trump an excellent shot at claiming 1,237 and be a devastating defeat to the Senator.

Expect Florida to be a war of attrition like 2012 with millions spent on TV ads (and the cavalry is coming with a heavily funded anti-Trump Super PAC hitting the airwaves), days of campaigning, and brutal attacks. Rumors continue to swirl Governor Rick Scott will endorse Trump, which would further lengthen Rubio’s odds. Florida is do or die for Rubio. If he wins (maybe a 25-33% shot at this point), he would suddenly be relatively well-positioned to take on Trump, but a loss is game-over. If Kasich were to lose alongside Rubio that night, the battle for the nomination would be effectively over with Trump able to run out the clock until he formally clinched it. Rubio is in a precarious position: the poor Super Tuesday showing makes getting an outright majority of delegates very difficult and forces him to come from behind in FL.

While Tuesday was in-line for Trump, he benefitted from the fact Cruz outperformed at Rubio’s expense, giving Cruz the rationale to stay in the race and continue splitting the vote. In future states, Rubio is more dangerous than Cruz, so Trump is happy to have Rubio further back in the delegate race. One cannot wonder if Rubio’s childish attacks on Trump backfired a bit. They may have succeeded in bringing down Trump but did some of those voters go to Cruz (who stayed above the fray to a degree) instead of Rubio? When you mud-wrestle, everyone gets dirty and the third person can benefit. Expect fireworks at the Thursday debate because the other candidates need to find a way to stop Trump by the 15th. If not, it will almost certainly be too late.

So that is how I see the race. Agree? Disagree? Let me know here or on Twitter!

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Your Super Tuesday Primer

We are now just hours from the biggest day in the GOP Primary: Super Tuesday. 11 states will be holding binding primaries or caucuses, primarily centered in the South, and 595 delegates are up for grabs. At this point, the base case has to be a Donald Trump romp. He clearly has the momentum and has proven to be quite strong in the South and Northeast where most of the primaries are being held. I would expect Trump to carry 9 or 10 states (Texas likely goes to Cruz, and Minnesota is a bit of a wild card). Given this outcome, Trump is the runaway frontrunner in the race (I’d give him a 70% chance at the nomination) with Senator Marco Rubio the best positioned of the rest to beat him. Below are details on Super Tuesday and five things to watch.

odds

First, here is the list of states holding their primaries as well as minimum thresholds. These are important because while every state has a proportional allocation system, candidates must reach a certain share of the vote either statewide or in a congressional district to qualify for any delegates. For instance to win any of its statewide delegates in Texas, a candidate needs 20%. If he only gets 19%, he will fail to garner any delegates. If only one candidate meets the threshold, he would get all the delegates. In other words, proportional isn’t exactly proportional. With Cruz and Rubio polling around the minimum threshold in some states, their exact vote total could significantly sway the delegate count.

st states

Based on my expected winners and assuming Kasich and Carson fall short of viability thresholds throughout much of the South, below is my expected delegate haul for each candidate. Note, these are rough estimates because making or missing a viability threshold could swing these numbers meaningfully. Relative to my baseline, the risk is to the upside for Rubio and Trump and to the downside for Cruz. I am still expecting a reasonable victory for Cruz in Texas, which explains his haul exceeding Rubio. Cruz is clearly losing altitude, and a loss in Texas or distant third place finishes in the South would leave him behind Rubio. If Trump can expand from the low-30%’s to the low-40%’s in some states, he could come closer to 275 delegates. Basically, I would expect Trump to have a 100+ delegate lead, somewhere around 40-45% of total delegates, with Cruz and Rubio in a close battle for second.

st delegates

Now what to look for:

  1. It’s Trump’s Race to Lose

Trump is going to clean up on Tuesday with an outside chance at running the table. He will very likely carry at least 9 states, and 10 is my bet. After Tuesday, Trump will have a big delegate lead but will likely have only 25-30% on the delegates needed to be the nominee. That said, winning begets more winning as voters typically bandwagon to the winner. While he is divisive, Trump will enjoy some of this, and a romping will help Trump in future states. Winning Florida and Ohio would slam the door shut.  Additionally, a romping could lead to a wave of endorsements as members of the political class aim to team up with a winner (a la Chris Christie). Some endorsements (possibly Rudy Giuliani or Florida Governor Rick Scott) could give him more momentum, and each endorsement makes him seem more acceptable to anti-Trump voters. Barring a really stunning turn of events, Trump will win big on Tuesday and will be in excellent shape to claim the nomination.

  1. Can Rubio Win Somewhere?

Much of the establishment is moving behind his bid, and he is the candidate best positioned to take on Trump at this point, though he is a distant underdog. At some point, Rubio needs to start winning states rather than merely rack up 2nd and 3rd place finishes. His firewall is Florida, but recent polls show him down double digits there. Losing Florida and its 99 delegates to Trump leaves him with no path to 1,237 delegates. The question is whether Rubio can come back in Florida without winning somewhere else first, and given recent polling, skepticism is merited. Rubio will not win many states on Tuesday, and Minnesota appears to be his best shot (though no one really knows with caucus turnout hard to predict). Elsewhere, Rubio should have a strong showing in Northern Virginia, though that is unlikely to be enough to carry the state. If he can’t win any states, his path does get narrower, and he will have to expend significant resources to take back FL and get on track. If he can beat Cruz throughout the South and take more delegates, Rubio may be able to get more anti-Trump voters to jump on board. The Rubio-Cruz battle for 2nd is one to watch. Rubio is best positioned among the non-Trump candidates but still faces a steep uphill climb.

  1. Can Cruz Stay Viable?

March 1 should be good for Cruz; the South is evangelical heavy, which is the base of his support. His home state of Texas is also the biggest delegate prize. If he can’t win on March 1, it is unclear where he could. Frankly to have a clear shot at the nomination, Cruz needs to be the delegate leader on Tuesday as the map gets worse for him thereafter. However, that’s just not going to happen after disappointing finishes in South Carolina and Nevada. He absolutely must win Texas to justify staying in, and I think that is likelier than not. It would be helpful to win another state with Arkansas or maybe Oklahoma his best shot, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Cruz will likely win TX and be shut out elsewhere, which is enough to merit sticking around but leaves him without a clear path to 1,237 delegates. His strategy would be one of accumulating delegates and playing in a contested convention, though there could be pressure to drop out and swing behind Rubio in an anti-Trump coalition. If he has more delegates than Rubio after Tuesday, would Cruz step aside though? I doubt it.

  1. Can Kasich Surprise in the Northeast?

Kasich is betting his campaign on winning Ohio and its 66 delegates on the 15th. If he carries Ohio while Rubio loses Florida the same day, he’d be the last viable candidate to face Trump (full disclosure: I’ve donated to the Kasich campaign). He is also looking to do well in Michigan the 8th to be a springboard into Ohio. However, much of the establishment is starting to coalesce around Rubio, so Kasich needs to notch some 2nd place finishes on Tuesday to stay in picture. Vermont and Massachusetts seem like the most likely places for that to happen. His message could also resonate in Northern Virginia and parts of Tennessee where he may be able to beat polls. Kasich is probably better positioned to win OH than Rubio is Florida, but he needs to stay in the conversation until then, which could prove difficult.

  1. Does Carson Drop Out?

Carson will not be President; that much became clear a long time ago. After Tuesday, I expect Carson will drop out. The best explanation for why Carson continues to run is that he wants to take votes away from Cruz (as payback for dirty tricks in Iowa), blocking him from 1st or 2nd place finishes in the South. After Tuesday, that goal will be complete, and his campaign will be running on fumes. Recognizing the inevitable, I would expect Carson to step aside.

 

So, that’s how I see Tuesday. Trump the clear frontrunner, Rubio best positioned to take him on, and Cruz losing altitude fast. Agree? Disagree? Let me know here or on Twitter!

Conseratives: Don’t Pledge #NeverTrump

On Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump, stepping on whatever debate momentum Senator Marco Rubio had and becoming the first major elected official to support the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President. Conservatives lit up the Governor for his endorsement with some like Erick Erickson pledging never to support Trump. In fact, #NeverTrump was trending across the United States on Friday night as conservatives lined up against Trump, making the same pledge as Erickson. This is a mistake.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting conservatives vote for Trump in the Republican primary as I am not a Trump supporter. I have supported Ohio Governor John Kasich since he announced last summer and continue to today (full disclosure: I have also donated to his campaign). I believe Kasich is the only candidate running today with any meaningful accomplishments in government, has an excellent record in Ohio, plays to our hopes rather than our fears, and is eminently electable. Across the board, Kasich is a better choice than Trump or Rubio or Senator Ted Cruz. I hope you vote for him in the primary.

That said, Trump is the clear frontrunner for the nomination (I would peg his odds at roughly 70%), and for the sake of argument, let’s assume he is the nominee. What should conservatives do in the General when he faces Clinton? Those saying #NeverTrump are pledging not to vote for him in that election, which is an error. Conservatives have five choices: stay home, vote 3rd party, don’t vote in the Presidential election but vote in down-ballot races, vote Hillary Clinton, or vote Trump. Hopefully, we agree staying home is the worst choice and a dereliction of civic duty. There are still important down-ballot races with qualified conservatives, and those candidates need our support. In the event of a credible 3rd party candidate (I would define credible as consistently polling in the 20’s), there may be a strong case to vote for that person over Trump or Hillary (I think this may happen with Mitt Romney possibly running as an independent conservative). Let’s set that scenario aside, as the question is whether it is wise to pledge never to support Trump, no if, ands, or buts. That leaves: Trump, Hillary, or blank ballot.

Ultimately, choosing a blank ballot or voting for Hillary makes it more likely she will be President by lowering the number of Democrat and Independent votes she must draw. I struggle to see how conservatives are better off with Clinton than Trump. Yes, Trump has changed positions on many issues over the years, but Clinton is a committed leftist who has moved further left to ward off the challenge from a socialist. On matters of policy, I am sympathetic to the notion Trump is a wildcard given his inconsistency, but is he going to be worse than Hillary? Yes, there is a risk Trump nominates a liberal to the Supreme Court, but is there any doubt Hillary would? Sometimes, you are better with the devil you don’t know than the devil you do, which would be the case in a Trump v. Clinton election even for conservatives more dubious of Trump than me.

In a vacuum, would Donald Trump be my choice for President? No, but general elections are choices. Not choosing one is a choice for the other; opposing Trump helps Hillary. Trump is a gamble, yes, but Clinton is a sure-fire losing hand. Relative to Hillary, the risk of a Trump Presidency is skewed to the upside. Trump is also not wrong on everything; he is right we need to be tougher on China. They hack our systems, steal our intellectual property, and are taking territory in the China Sea. He is right that the working class is being screwed; median wages are lower than when George W. Bush became President. Both parties are to blame. On foreign affairs, I would also note Clinton has not been a particular success. How’s the Russian reset? Or Libyan intervention? Or situation in Syria? I do think Trump is peddling some fiction to get elected (note: I am not excusing this behavior) and would govern more as a centrist technocrat, so I believe he would be a more competent President than Clinton. Even if you disagree with that assessment, which is admitted speculation, Clinton will be at least as damaging to the conservative cause as he would be given her platform. She will certainly push for leftist policies whereas he may not. His upside exceeds his downside relative to Clinton.

I would also note that much of what conservatives hate/fear (the Muslim ban, his insults, his comments on libel laws, his finger on the nuclear button etc.) are likely campaign bluster. Again, I am not excusing that behavior, but it suggests he could be a fine President. Even if I am wrong, our government has well-built structures that limit the power of the President, ensuring these positions could not become law. The strength of our institutions deserve more credit than some alarmists let on, further diminishing his downside. While Trump enjoys a Twitter tirade, he has a history of avoiding direct confrontation (with the exception of his personal punching bag, Jeb Bush) as illustrated by his handling of Megyn Kelly among others. I see no reason to feel less safe with Trump our Commander-in-Chief than Clinton.

#NeverTrump conservatives should also ask themselves whether his VP choice could sway them. Ultimatums made rashly can make one look foolish when one reverses or keep one anchored to bad positions out of an aversion to reversing. Does Cruz (or someone else) allay some concerns? If yes, perhaps, it is best to wait for him to make that choice. Assuming he is the nominee, who Trump picks as his VP will be fascinating and enlightening. If I were to make 5 guesses, I would go (in descending order of likelihood): David Petraeus, a business person (to emphasize the anti-politician theme—this un-named pick on my part is a clear cop-out), John Kasich, Bill O’Reilly, and Chris Christie. Who really knows though?

The General Election is a choice, and Trump is a better one than Clinton, especially as his worst ideas won’t become law with any reasonable congress if he even pursues them.

Conservatives could stand to benefit from some of Trump’s populism, and we do need toughness against China. He would also likely surround himself with smart people, providing wise council. A couple dozen people I know, whose judgment I respect and whose character is unimpeachable, are Trump supporters, and their support may have softened my opposition. The twittersphere showcases the worst of his support but is not representative of much of his base. Questions of moral fitness aside, I do think Trump, whom would likely govern as a centrist and pragmatist, would be a decent President, and the fact Clinton with her server and serial lying is equally unfit renders that concern moot in the General Election.

Conservatives have every right to oppose Trump in the primary. However should he be the nominee (very likely), we should be anti-Hillary in 2016, and this may mean voting for Donald Trump. Pledging #NeverTrump is a mistake.

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South Carolina Primary Takeaways

On Saturday, South Carolina delivered Donald Trump a massive victory, in-line with my expectations outlined here (and in the tweet below). Trump claimed about one-third of the vote, enough for a roughly 10% win and a seeming sweep of the 50 delegates. Jeb Bush was relegated to single-digits, and he did the right thing, suspending his campaign. There are now five men standing, though only four have any shot left (Carson is merely spoiler at this point). Below are some takeaways after South Carolina as well as updated odds.

odds

 

  1. Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner

This was a big win for Trump, outperforming some recent polls, showing his lead down to 5%. This win was crucial for him to retain and build on his NH momentum. No one has won NH and SC and failed to be the Republican nominee, though there can always be a first time. Trump’s odds are now over 50% in my opinion as you can see from the above chart. His gains come mainly at the expense of Cruz because if Cruz can’t beat him here, where in the South does Cruz beat Trump March 1? Trump is poised to romp across the South and be the clear delegate leader. After a huge March 1 showing, he would even have a solid chance at winning Florida the 15th, knocking Rubio out. Trump is in an enviable position.

I also don’t buy that Trump is doomed when the field narrows further as he will pick up some voters of dropped out candidates and starts with the highest base of support. With each Trump win, anti-Trump resistance will also soften. Remember, McCain and Romney each got less than 35% in SC and were able to consolidate down the line. Yes, Trump’s ceiling is probably lower than past nominees, but it may well be over 50%. Not every vote cast for someone else is an “anti-Trump” vote, some are pro-Rubio, pro-Cruz etc. and can be swayed. Every candidate would swap places with Trump. That’s a fact.

  1. Ted Cruz is in real trouble

With 70% of voters evangelical and a very conservative electorate, SC should’ve been fertile for Cruz, instead he got 3rd. If Cruz can’t beat Trump here, where can he on March 1 (apart from TX)? Cruz will rack up a lot of delegates that day, but he needs to win states as the map gets worse for him thereafter. After SC, Cruz is still viable with a strong cash position and likely the second most delegates after March 1, but to have an obvious path, he probably needs to be the delegate leader after March 1 as Rubio will stick around until Florida and later states are less conservative.

In hindsight, choosing to campaign in NH was probably a mistake as that 3rd place finish did nothing for him. Conversely a strong 2nd or 1st in SC would have left Cruz with more momentum heading down South. He should’ve hunkered down in SC for the extra week. Cruz needs a killer debate this week to regain the momentum vs. Trump. Otherwise, he is a bad position. He can collect a lot of delegates and be a player in a contested convention, but barring a big shift this week, getting a majority of delegates seems pretty challenging. In hindsight, I have been overstating Cruz’s chances the past month at Trump’s expense and fixed the mistake. I’d peg Cruz’s odds at this point at 1 in 10, but he needs to find a spark this week.

  1. Marco Rubio is in a good, but tenuous, position

By knocking Jeb out, Rubio is in very good position to consolidate much of the establishment lane and have anti-Trump factions coalesce around him. 2nd place is quite good, but Rubio did have Haley, Scott, and Gowdy on his team. If he can’t win a state with so much support from the power structure, where does he win? Again, given how some ridiculously wrote Rubio off after NH, SC was a strong showing, but he must win at some point. The South will be tough on March 1, and Rubio’s best shot may be Virginia or possibly Minnesota. Rubio is the candidate who is arguably acceptable to the broadest swath of voters, which is why I see him as the likeliest non-Trump nominee. By virtue of knocking Jeb out, this was a good night. He also should pick up many Jeb donors, which is important as his campaign is down to $5 million cash on hand as of 1/31.

That is why he is in a good position, but it is tenuous because he needs to win somewhere. To be the nominee, you can’t just rack up 2nd and 3rd. Florida is total firewall on the 15th, and with it comes 99 delegates. Rubio can lurk behind Trump, pick up FL, make a big move up in delegates, and have the momentum to beat him. However, if Rubio loses FL, he is done for. If Rubio can’t win a state before the 15th, there is a serious risk Trump beats him in FL. This is why Rubio is still in a tenuous place. Maybe he wins NV (polling is impossible here), but he needs to find someplace on March 1 to make that stand and hold momentum into FL. Rubio is the establishment’s best shot after the first 3 primaries, but now he needs to win.

  1. John Kasich retains a narrow path

South Carolina didn’t matter to Kasich, and his narrow path remains: surprise in MA, VT, and maybe VA on the 1st, use that to win or take a close 2nd in MI the 8th, and use that to win OH big the 15th alongside strong showings in IL and MO. (Full disclosure: I have donated to Kasich) Everything must go right for this to happen, and if not, he risks playing spoiler for Rubio, which is why some establishment types will call for his exit. However, Kasich is much less likely to lose OH than Rubio is FL, given his sky-high approval ratings and the entire state party working feverishly for him there. In a sense, Kasich is arguably a Rubio insurance policy. If Rubio can’t beat Trump in FL, the establishment needs someone who can, and with an OH win that day, Kasich would be the only guy left. Kasich has a narrow path but a path; I’d peg the odds around 4%. One thing to watch for is whether governors rally around the last governor left. In particular, a Christie endorsement seems quite possible, and with his RGA connections, others might follow. If Christie bring MA’s Baker on board, that would help Kasich surprise on the 1st.

Where to next?

We have NV on Tuesday, which is very hard to predict (my guess is Trump but Rubio could surprise). Eyes will really be focused on the SEC Primary. Right now, it seems like Trump is going to roll. Cruz needs to find some way to regain momentum. Rubio has to find a state or two to win, and Kasich needs to build a Northeast firewall before Michigan. It will also be interesting to see what a debate is like without Jeb (aka the Trump punching-bag). Fun times, indeed!

In brief after South Carolina, I’d rather be Trump than anyone else. He is the clear frontrunner. Rubio is best positioned to rally together anti-Trump factions, but he better do so soon.

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South Carolina Primary Predictions and Thoughts

Well, the first in the South primary, South Carolina, is upon us, and public polling has added a bit of uncertainty to the race. While most polls had been showing Donald Trump with a commanding 15+% lead, others since the debate show a less than 5% lead (perhaps his George W. Bush attack did have ramifications). Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz appear to be battling for 2nd and 3rd, though some polls have also shown Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich with a potential shot at 3rd while Dr. Ben Carson has been languishing. Below are my predictions as well as what each candidate needs to achieve to consider the night a success.

 

Donald Trump: Trump is the national frontrunner and every candidate would trade places with him. Given all the polls showing him up 10+%, a loss in SC would be a major surprise and setback but not enough to totally derail his candidacy as he would still likely place well with numerous victories across the South on March 1. A win in SC would really solidify his standing and give him momentum to nearly run the table March 1 (it is hard to see him win TX at this point). My guess is the polls showing him up 15% are overstating things and he likely wins by about 10%. At that point, it very much becomes Trump’s race to lose with a chance to take a commanding delegate lead and a head of steam after the SEC Primary, though if the field narrows to 2 after the 15th all bets are off. I would expect Trump to win tomorrow with the operative question “by how much.” I guess 9%.

Marco Rubio: Rubio has seemingly rebounded from his NH debacle thanks to a strong ground game, solid debate performance, and key endorsements from Rep. Trey Gowdy, Sen. Tim Scott, and Gov. Nikki Haley. With that popular trio, Rubio should be finishing very strongly in SC, even if NH derailed the “3-2-1” strategy (now it’s the less catchy “3-5-2/3”). The Rubio/Cruz battle for 2nd/3rd is very close, but Rubio appears to be the candidate with the momentum. These endorsements have given Rubio the shot he has at 2nd but raise the bar for success. 2nd place leaves Rubio in a very good position to consolidate the “establishment” and “center-right” lanes, become the clear anti-Trump choice, and win a few states (perhaps NV?) before picking up Florida’s 99 delegates the 15th. A solid 3rd gives Rubio some momentum and still leaves him the clear choice in anti-Trump circles. The problem for Rubio would arise if he came in a weak 3rd (say 15%). If that’s all he can muster with the institutional support he has in SC, it will raise reasonable concerns about where Rubio can win. A weak showing could let Bush continue, siphoning off votes on March 1, while leaving the anti-Trump part of the party fractured. In the worst case, Rubio, without any SC momentum, goes winless on the 1st and 8th, leaving him vulnerable to losing to Trump in FL, ending his bid. My base case is 2nd for Rubio, but he has to perform tomorrow, if he drifts much below 17%, yellow lights will be flashing.  15% is my benchmark for failure, which is not my expectation.

Ted Cruz: Cruz like Rubio needs a strong showing, and while I see him in a close third, his fantastic ground game could still get him in 2nd. The fact is Cruz needs to crush it on March 1 because the map gets very unfavorable after that. He should win big in TX, which could net him 100-120 delegates, but he needs some wins elsewhere in the South to wrest the anti-establishment crown from Trump as places like MI, OH, MO, FL, WI are unlikely to be as favorable as AL, TN, OK, and GA. If Cruz can’t win in the South, it is unclear where he could thereafter. A bunch of second place finishes to Trump would give him plenty of delegates and a chance in a brokered convention but would leave him with a challenged path to winning outright. Cruz needs to walk out of SC with some momentum so that he can challenge Trump on March 1. A win certainly would do that but seems unlikely. 2nd also leaves him with a decent shot, though he will need a good week campaigning and solid debate performance to hold Trump back. A 3rd place finish leaves Cruz in a weakened position, and something closer to 15% than 20% would be very problematic (though that seems unlikely). For Cruz to have a credible shot at the nomination, he likely needs to be the delegate leader after March 1. A weak SC showing makes that tough to envision.

Jeb Bush: Bush needs a top three finish to justify continuing his campaign. Besides running low on cash at the campaign level, he may not have much of a choice about how much longer he continues. After making SC a make or break state and bringing in his brother to campaign for him, a loss to Rubio would be very disappointing and lead to even more of a donor exodus. If he can beat Rubio, Bush will be able to stick around, though it is unclear when Bush would actually be able to win a primary. Anyway at this point, 5th place is likelier than 3rd. With money drying up and no momentum, Bush’s campaign will probably be done after SC, though he may take a shot at NV hoping to hit the proverbial jackpot. If he sticks around despite a poor finish, it will be nothing but a vanity effort with Bush too hobbled to have any credible chance at the nomination.

John Kasich: Kasich probably has the lowest bar of any candidate tomorrow as South Carolina has never seemed like a perfect fit, especially given the time and money Rubio and Bush have devoted to the state (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). I would look for Kasich to finish 5th, and it would be helpful for him to get to double digits to keep some of his NH momentum. Surpassing Bush, an outside possibility, would also help him in the expectations game. Kasich retains a narrow path to the nomination that doesn’t change much based on SC: use March 15 (a huge win in OH, strong showings/wins in MO and IL) to consolidate anti-Trump and start a big winning streak. That likely requires winning or a strong 2nd in Michigan on the 8th. To do that, I would argue he must show some viability on March 1, probably by winning or coming in 2nd in VT, MA, and maybe VA. It is a narrow path, and SC won’t derail it, but a finish above Jeb would be beneficial. One thing to watch for is a possible Governor Christie endorsement before March 1, which could bring other Governors (like MA’s Charlie Baker) on board and help Kasich score a better than expected showing on the 1st.

Ben Carson: There just is no plausible path for Carson to be the Republican nominee, and I would expect a 6th place finish, though thanks to committed supporters, there is an outside chance he sneaks into 5th. Ben Carson really seems to be this cycle’s Fred Thompson. In 2008, Thompson, who had no shot, stayed in through SC to pull votes from Huckabee and help his friend, John McCain win the state. It feels like Carson is sticking around to take votes away from Cruz, whose campaign spread a rumor he was dropping out in Iowa. By pulling over 5%, Carson does make Cruz’s life tougher, thereby helping Trump. Carson may stick around through March 1st, but if he does, it will only serve to hurt Cruz.

Ultimately, Cruz and Rubio are in somewhat precarious positions. Both need to exit SC with momentum to gain ownership of their lane. Strong showings put them in good positions to take on Trump, but weak showings could cripple them. I’m going to guess Rubio bests Cruz but both achieve what they need to. For Trump, a win solidifies his status as frontrunner, particularly if he can make it double-digits, but even a shocking loss leaves him with a path. Jeb is all but done, but Rubio needs to put him away. Carson is merely playing spoiler. Perhaps more than a strong performance of his own, Kasich is rooting for a bit softer Rubio performance to delay the consolidation of the establishment lane, making his narrow path a bit more plausible.

Of course, if these predictions are proven wrong in 24 hours, I will deny having given them. That does seem to work for our frontrunner after all…

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New Hampshire Takeaways

On Tuesday, the people of New Hampshire delivered Donald Trump a seismic victory, winning 100,000 votes and more than doubling anyone else in the field with 35% of the vote. After his disappointment in Iowa, this was the type of victory Trump needed to indisputably maintain the title of “frontrunner.” After that, John Kasich, who staked his campaign on New Hampshire, showed hard work (and 100+ town halls) pays off with a solid 2nd at 16% (Full disclosure: I’ve donated to the Kasich campaign). Ted Cruz came in 3rd with 11.7%, Jeb Bush in 4th at 11%, and Marco Rubio a disappointing 5th with 10.6%. After their poor showings, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina dropped out while Ben Carson will make a stand in South Carolina, if only to spite Cruz. Below are some takeaways from NH.

As an aside, my predictions were pretty mixed. While I was right 3rd-5th would be close, I did botch the order:

  1. This was a Trump mandate. He’s the frontrunner.

Trump won voters in every age group by double-digits, with every amount of education, winning even 33% of those with college degrees, every income bracket, and in every ideological bucket from very conservative to moderate. For all the talk of his limited appeal, Trump was the most acceptable candidate to every faction of the state. Yes, 35% is far short of 51%, but in a multi-candidate field like this, getting past 50% is a herculean if not downright impossible feat. Yes, the working and middle class are the backbone of Trump’s support, but clearly, Trumpism permeates beyond these precincts.

Plus, those people hoping Trump supporters wouldn’t vote look foolish. The caucus system undoubtedly hurt Trump disproportionately, but in a primary, he gets his people out. Trump likely has a double digit lead in South Carolina and poised for a “yuge” performance on March 1. The next two weeks will be brutal, and we will see if he can withstand an onslaught of attacks (as well as whether he will really loosen the purse strings to fight back on the airwaves). Trump has a built an impressive, broad coalition that leaves him with the best position in the race. If he can hold on in SC, he will be tough to beat. Some in the establishment will continue to downplay Trump; they are kidding themselves.

  1. Ted Cruz is also in an enviable position.

Cruz got a solid 3rd in NH by holding to his core of conservatives, and besting Bush and Rubio was a nice coup given how little time he spent in the Granite State. With its large number of evangelical voters, South Carolina should be hospitable to Cruz. March 1 is setting up to be a battle between Trump and Cruz, so winning SC will be a key test to build momentum into those contests. Cruz is behind today in SC, but with a strong debate performance on Saturday and massive volunteer network, he could consolidate the right pole of the party and make a real run at Trump. Expect the Cruz-Trump feud to be brutal, and Rubio will likely go after Cruz to try and gain some ground as well.

Cruz will also need to push down Carson whose voters would likely gravitate to Cruz as a second choice. Carson may play the role of Fred Thompson who in 2008 stayed in and peeled off enough voters to keep Mike Huckabee from surpassing John McCain. Cruz is this cycle’s Huckabee with Trump McCain. If Cruz can close the gap here, he is well positioned across the South on March 1, which he will need to propel himself into less hospitable Midwest and Northeast states. Apart from Trump, Cruz is in the best place.

  1. I’d still rather be Marco Rubio than Jeb Bush

Rubio was in a position to coalesce the center right with a 2nd place showing in NH; instead, that terrible debate sent him reeling down to 5th. That is a major setback, but this is not fatal for Rubio. Rubio is still flush with cash and is broadly acceptable to wide swaths of the party. Losing to Bush is a clear negative, but let’s keep perspective. Bush spent over $30 million and weeks in the state, both multiples of Rubio. For his efforts, he got 4th place and bested Rubio by about 0.5% or around 1,000 votes. This comes a week after Rubio beat Bush by nearly 20% in Iowa. The media got too excited after Rubio’s Iowa finish and is now too downbeat about New Hampshire. Bush, the former frontrunner with $100 million plus in donations, has managed 6th and 4th. That’s…not good.

Bush will make his stand in SC, hoping his brother’s presence on the trail can bail him out, but Bush fatigue is a real phenomenon, and Trump has totally emasculated the Florida Governor. Bush is also highly unlikely to do to Rubio at the debate what Christie did. Some Bush donors seemed ready to capitulate to Rubio a week ago, and now a few Rubio donors appear ready to capitulate to Bush. This is less the sign of a major realignment than a sign of how fickle and panicky members of the establishment and donor class are. Rubio and Bush is a battle of new and old both between them and the surrogates (Senator Scott vs. Graham). Rubio is more acceptable to more voters whereas Bush likely has a very real ceiling due to familial baggage. If Rubio delivers a great debate (and as Gingrich showed in 2012, debates matter in SC), the NH fiasco will be forgotten. 1,000 people in New Hampshire didn’t change a weeks-long dynamic. Rubio is far more likely to be the nominee than Bush; he’s just given Bush more cover to pursue this failed campaign for longer.

  1. John Kasich has a path, albeit a narrow one

With less money and a lower name ID, Kasich has a narrower path to the nomination. Despite his record of balancing budgets, his Medicaid decision has elicited skepticism among some on the right. Kasich will need to stick to his unique, optimistic message to set him apart in the race while pointing to his record at the Federal and State levels to improve numbers with conservatives. Either way, South Carolina and March 1 Southern states are unlikely to be a region of strength. He needs to find a way to stay relevant, raise money, and build an organization in Michigan, which votes on March 8 and should be more hospitable to him. A win there could catapult him to a huge night on March 15 when he should easily carry Ohio and its 66 delegates and hopefully do very well in Missouri and Illinois. Doing well could set him for a big April when Northeast and Midwest states continue to vote.

The challenge for Kasich is appearing viable on March 8, so that he can win or do extremely well in Michigan. That means winning somewhere before then, probably on March 1 when VT and MA vote in addition to the South. MN and VA could also be fertile territory. Some wins in these states, plus a surprising showing in a state like Alabama (where the governor has endorsed him) will make Kasich appear viable and give him a shot at running the table in the Midwest to make a late run for the nomination. Is this an easy path? No, it requires a lot going right on March 1, 8, and 15, but it isn’t impossible, especially if Rubio and Bush keep attacking each other, driving up their unfavorable while Kasich continues to stay above the fray.

  1. Contested convention odds have risen but remain remote

A contested convention is still unlikely in my opinion, but Trump is not going away and Rubio has failed to coalesce the center right. Add in all the proportional states, and no one could get to 1,236 delegates. This also positions someone like Kasich to be a potential kingmaker simply by having Ohio’s 66 delegates. Ultimately, I expect the field to narrow, most likely after the 15th to 2 or 3 viable candidates with one getting enough momentum to win. However, NH has prolonged the thinning of the field while giving Bush more reason to hang on. This leaves the potential for Trump to stay in the 30%’s, get a chunk of delegates, Cruz to win the core right, and Kasich/Rubio/Bush to split the rest. That would cause chaos, leave the party fractured, and the nominee weakened in the General. The odds are still well below 10% in my estimation but they are higher than 72 hours ago.

With that, here’s how I would peg the odds after New Hampshire. Trump a clear favorite with Rubio down but not out while Bush and Kasich are a ways behind. However, as NH showed, voters can do surprising thing. The fun has only just begun.

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New Hampshire Primary: Predictions and Thoughts

After a seeming eternity between Iowa and the first in the nation primary, the New Hampshire primary is upon us. Below is a quick set of predictions as well as a breakdown of what each candidate needs to achieve to stay viable as we move south to South Carolina and later the SEC Primary on March 1.

New Hampshire polling is notoriously unreliable, but given what we know, I would expect Donald Trump to win, though probably underperform his polling average. With a decent debate, Trump was able to stop the bleeding after Iowa and looks poised to win (thanks in no small part to Marco Rubio’s disastrous response to Chris Christie at the debate, which likely slowed whatever momentum he had). Slots 2-5 are incredibly volatile and could plausibly break any way; the rankings here are the most likely source of surprise and drama on election night. With a strong ground game and late momentum, John Kasich seems the favorite to come in second (Full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign), and I would look for Rubio to come in third, followed by Cruz then Bush. With independents making up ~40% of the electorate, and a similar number still open to switching candidates, each candidate could easily swing several percent, making this race for 2-5 very unstable. That is how I see it, but we could easily see different results. However with Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Christie running solidly, it is hard to see anyone surpassing Trump, even if he comes in closer to 20% than 30%.

What each candidate needs:

Donald Trump: Trump needs a victory, simple as that. After the stinging loss in Iowa, the frontrunner can’t afford a second loss, especially when every poll shows him up 10% or more. Another loss would remove his aura of invincibility and leave him mortally wounded into South Carolina. Fortunately for Trump, it looks like he will get the victory he needs, giving him momentum as we head towards friendly territory down South. With an NH win in hand, Trump would continue to be the national frontrunner and would also be the favorite for the South Carolina primary the 20th (plenty of time for Cruz or Rubio to make a move).

John Kasich: To have a path forward, Kasich needs either a second place finish or very strong third given the 100+ town halls he has done in NH. Kasich has improved as a candidate but still has low national numbers and faces skepticism from the conservative wing. He needs a strong NH finish to raise money, build out his team, and get support in other states. If he can’t manage a strong third, these resources won’t be coming, and dropping out is a distinct possibility. Should he get the finish I expect, Kasich will have a path forward, though many states are not as clearly hospitable to him in the near term, and he needs to find a way to maintain momentum and amass delegates between now and Ohio on March 15 (when he should win the winner take all 66 delegates). That probably means getting to double digits in SC, and on March 1 doing very well in MA, VA, ME, and VT (which should be favorable to his message) while having solid showings in MS and AL where endorsements should help. Michigan on the 8th would also seem key to the Kasich strategy. It is a narrow, but doable path into OH, but it all starts with a strong finish in NH as a pre-condition.

Marco Rubio: Rubio really needs a second or strong third finish. After Iowa, second seemed within reach (if not a shot at first place), but the debate took some wind out of his sails. Second place would help monopolize establishment support, but a strong third still leaves Rubio with the best shot of unifying the establishment wing. Losing to Cruz or Bush as well as Kasich would jeopardize this and likely leave the establishment scattered for longer. Second is still possible, but anything below third would be a real disappointment for the Senator. With 3rd in hand, Rubio is in solid shape for South Carolina and Nevada (where he should win), though the Southern tilt on March 1 is not friendly. Rubio would benefit from both Cruz and Trump splitting the vote, opening the door to some Rubio upsets. With high favorables and broadly acceptable, he is a near-certain finalist for the nomination.

Ted Cruz: Cruz doesn’t need anything from NH; with only 22% of the electorate evangelical, it isn’t a good fit. As such, there is only upside. If he somehow finishes ahead of Rubio, that would do real damage to the Florida Senator’s campaign. Still, a showing north of 10% would be respectable for the Iowa winner and leave him in good shape for South Carolina. Cruz will be facing off against Trump for dominance in the South as each try to corner the anti-establishment lane. Cruz continues to be very well positioned for a prolonged delegate battle.

Jeb Bush: I remain incredibly bearish on Bush’s prospects, failing to see a path to the nomination for Jeb. His Bush name and low-energy demeanor are insurmountable hurdles this cycle in my estimation. Still, he has enough cash and the apparently the will to fight through South Carolina, and this race to stop Rubio seems increasingly personal for him. Given the time and resources the once-crowned frontrunner devoted to NH, Bush really needs to finish ahead of one of Kasich and Rubio to have a reasonable rationale forward, but a failure to achieve this is unlikely to deter Bush, though another poor showing there might mark the end of this underwhelming campaign.

Chris Christie: While Christie did damage to Rubio at the debate, it is unclear if he convinced voters to pull the lever for Christie on Election Day. Christie still seems mired in the single-digits despite spending almost all of his time in NH. To be remotely plausible, he really needs a top 4 finish, but 6th place seems more likely. If Rubio does poorly, he may try to carry on, but low on cash and with a weak result in a state he focused so much on, that effort would seem futile. Christie dropping out to endorse another Governor is a distinct possibility, and if Christie wants a Governor not a Senator to be the nominee (which seems to be the case), that is his best path forward.

Carly Fiorina: Apart from a brief bump in August after her debate performance, Fiorina has struggled to gain traction and is unlikely to make a move tonight. With cash running low and options lower, pulling out doesn’t seem out of the cards. If she carries on, she is unlikely to be a major factor. She has proven to be an adept debater and excellent at taking on Hillary Clinton, meaning she will be a useful surrogate in the General Election, and potentially a Cabinet appointee.

Ben Carson: NH is not favorable for Carson with its small share of evangelicals, and he did not campaign hard here. Having burnt through so much money and with questionable knowledge of foreign affairs, Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, and NH won’t change that. However, Carson has a devoted following, mainly among evangelicals. In Southern states, he could still pull towards 10%, mainly from Ted Cruz, making him a powerful spoiler. Carson seems intent on carrying on, if only to block Cruz after the Iowa controversy, and he can siphon off votes in South Carolina and on March 1.

 

So, that’s how I see NH. Given this perspective, here is how I see each candidate’s odds at getting the nomination before we see the NH results. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio are functionally co-frontrunners (I give Trump a slight edge given better national numbers and a likely win in NH, but a surprise loss would change this dramatically). Among the Governors, Kasich is top simply because he is most likely to have a big night in NH.

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