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Monday, November 23, 2015


Inasmuch as this is my blog, I figure I get to write about what obsesses me, so here we go again into the weeds.  It goes without saying that this has been an authentically weird primary season on the Republican side.  For almost five months, which is an eternity in politics, Donald Trump has led the mob of aspiring governors, senators, and odd balls, with the strangest candidate of many decades, Dr. Ben Carson, nipping at his heels.  Readers of this blog know that I have been looking into the details of the primary selection process, and it now is clear to me that Donald Trump could really be the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2016.  Indeed, I think it is reasonable to say that he not only can be nominated, but is at this point very close to being the odds on favorite to be nominated.

Despite sitting for so long atop the polls, Trump still clocks in at only 30-35% of "likely Republican primary voters."  How on earth can I say, on the basis of these facts, that he is close to being the odds on favorite to win the nomination.  Ah, well you may ask, little grasshopper.  [Reference to an old TV show.]  I will now plunge into the weeds, and those of a more balanced temperament can turn their attention to the pressing question, "Will the New England Patriots remain undefeated this evening after their Monday Night game against Buffalo?"

Let me review some numbers I have bored you with in past posts.  A total of 2484 delegate votes will be cast at the Republican Nominating Convention in Ohio next July.  To win, a candidate needs a majority, which is to say 1243 votes.  The delegates will be selected in two quite different ways.  1865 of them will be selected by the voters or attendees in caucuses and primaries, beginning in Iowa on February 1, 2016 and ending with a group of five primaries [including the biggest, California!] on June 7, 2016.  The remaining 619 delegates, sometimes referred to as "super delegates," will be allocated to the several states by a strict formula and chosen by party leaders in those states.  The super delegates tend to be state and local elected officials and party officials who worry a great deal about down-ticket candidates [including, in some cases, themselves.]  Since it is widely believed that a Trump candidacy would be a disaster for the Party, not many of them are likely to vote for him at the Convention.  So if Trump is to get 1243 votes, he is going to have to win almost all of them in the primaries and caucuses. 

A little arithmetic tells us that 1243 is two-thirds of 1865.  With barely a third of the vote, how on earth can Trump win two-thirds of those delegates?  The answer lies in some reasonable assumptions about what the field will look like when the voting starts in a bit more than two months and in the details of the delegate selection process.

Assumptions first.  Right now, Trump and Carson are getting roughly 50% of the vote in polls, with Cruz and Rubio together getting perhaps 20% and the other 30% scattered among all the other candidates and "don't know."  But that is going to change rapidly after the Iowa caucuses on February 1st and the New Hampshire primary on February 9th.  A great winnowing will take place, and when the grim reaper has done his work, the field will probably consist of Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, Bush, and a few other die-hards who cannot quite believe they are not loved by their fellow Republicans.  At this point, the absolutely most crucial single factor is the Carson vote.  Either he continues to pull 20 -25%, or his utter and bizarre weirdness finally becomes too much even for Evangelical Christians, and he sinks to 10% or so. 

If Carson remains at the higher figure, there are two possibilities.  The first is that Cruz and Rubio advance, side by side, each one getting maybe 15-18% or so of the 50% left over after Trump and Carson have eaten their fill.  The second is that one of them [probably Rubio] emerges as the Establishment favorite, getting enough votes to challenge Trump for the lead.  I think the first possibility is far and away the more likely, but all the serious and knowledgeable people who comment on politics on TV, in newspapers, and on-line, seem to be assuming that the second will happen, putting an end to Trump's run.

If Carson tanks, that frees up a good many more votes, and if Trump does not scarf up a goodly portion of them, there is plenty of room for a Rubio to overcome Trump and go for the gold.  Since I find Carson beyond weird, I just cannot tell whether he is going to nose dive, but he sure hasn't thus far.

But this stills leaves the original question:  How can Trump win the nomination while only taking a third of the vote?  Now for some details.  According to Republican National Committee [RNC] rules, all the primaries and caucuses held on or before March 15 -- so called Super Tuesday -- must allocate their delegates "proportionally."   Many states holding primaries after March 15 2016 will also allocate delegates proportionally, including the biggest of them all, California.

However , "proportionally" does not mean that a candidate who gets 7% of the vote gets 7% of the delegates.  Not at all!  There are several different systems of proportional allocation, but most of them are one of two variations.  An example will make this clear.

A state gets three delegates for each Congressional District, or CD, plus some at-large delegates.  South Carolina, the third state to choose delegates, is typical.  South Carolina has seven CDs, so that is 21 delegates.  It also gets 24 at-large delegates, for a total of 45 South Carolina delegates.  In each CD, the leading candidate gets all three delegates.  In addition, the candidate with the most votes state-wide gets all 24 at-large delegates.  Well, supposed Trump is still leading the pack, and manages to get the most votes in four of the seven CDs, as well as the most votes in the state as a whole.,  In that case he gets (4 x 3) + 24 = 36 delegates.

Which means that with only 30-35% of the vote, Trump wins 80% of the delegates!

Some states are not quite so lopsidedly favorable to the front-runner, using what is called a "winner gets most" system.  But even this system is biased in favor of the leading vote-getter.  This is no accident, of course.  The system was devised by the RNC to make sure that a front runner would emerge as a winner without a long, bitter fight leading to an open Convention.  The RNC just did not imagine that Donald Trump would be their front runner.

We are now entering the Thanksgiving-New Year's hiatus, when Americans go shopping and forget about politics.  By the time all the unwanted presents have been returned and all the after-season sales have concluded, there will only be a few weeks before actual delegates get chosen and the frenzy leading up to and beyond Super Tuesday erupts.

The schedule, heavy on Southern states early on, favors Trump and Carson.  I believe it is possible, bordering on likely, that well before Americans have to file their taxes, Trump will be on his way to a lock on the delegate selection process.  The prospect of that in March will drive the Republican Establishment bonkers.  I think [I am not sure] they could actually cancel their Convention and retreat to an Electronic Smoke Filled Room.  But that may just be a politics junkie's wet dream.


Carl said...

"Could Trump win? We confront two stubborn facts: first, that nobody remotely like Trump has won a major-party nomination in the modern era. And second, as is always a problem in analysis of presidential campaigns, we don’t have all that many data points, so unprecedented events can occur with some regularity. For my money, that adds up to Trump’s chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent. Your mileage may vary. But you probably shouldn’t rely solely on the polls to make your case; it’s still too soon for that."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Yes, I am aware of that. There is nothing to be gained from arguing about predictions. The appropriate thing to do is to wait and see which of them turn out to have been correct. Then we can ask whether they were just good guesses or indicate some genuine understanding. I should think by March we will begin to have some pretty good real data.

chrismealy said...

I was skimming some of the rules on The Green Papers a couple of days ago, and I noticed that some states throw out votes for candidates that don't achieve a certain percentage threshold (10% in NH). It sure seems like whoever is leading in the polls is going to be the winner.