Okay, so time for another bold and extremely early political prediction regarding the Republican primary contest.
(I enjoy making bold and extremely early political predictions for two reasons: (1) I like to game out my understanding of things and then let future events be the judge of how well I actually have a handle on what is going on; (2) as professional political pundits learned a long time ago, if my predictions are wrong then no one remembers, but if my predictions are right then I can point to my early forecast and tell people I’m a genius. Win/win!)
So, here it is: Marco Rubio will be the GOP nominee, but that won’t be obvious until we get to the actual Republican convention. Follow below to see how I get there.
My operating assumption is that Republican insiders, the people who actually control the Republican party, will never allow Donald Trump to be the GOP’s nominee. Were Trump to be the nominee then those people would have effectively ceded control over the party to Trump and his followers, and humans are famous for never ceding control of an institution of which they are in charge; people will almost always allow an organization to burn to the ground before they let another group replace them as leaders of that organization.
With this operating assumption in mind, let’s look at how the GOP nomination actually gets awarded. Basically (and I am using round numbers here for simplicity’s sake), the GOP casts 2400 delegate votes at its convention, and the candidate who obtains at least 50% + 1 of those votes (i.e., a simple majority) becomes the Republican presidential nominee. This means that a candidate needs to lock up about 1200 votes (again, rounding) in order to secure the nomination.
Now of the 2400 total delegate votes cast at the convention, 600 of those votes are of the type called “nonpledged.” These are votes controlled by Republican insiders and party leaders, and during the very first nominating round these votes can be cast for anybody those Republican insiders and party leaders want.
The other 1800 votes come from “pledged” delegates. Under current GOP rules (the rules change after nearly every political convention), pledged votes are assigned based on a candidate’s performance during the primary and caucus contests held prior to the convention. Once assigned, the pledged delegates are required to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged, but only in the first nominating round. If, after the first nominating round, no candidate has obtained a 50% + 1 vote majority, then a second round of voting takes place and – at that point – all the delegates essentially are “unpledged,” meaning they can vote for whomsoever they please.
What this means is that, to lock up the nomination prior to the first nominating round, a candidate needs to secure 1200 out of the 1800 pledged delegates awarded during all the state contests. In other words, if the candidate wins two-thirds of all the available pledged delegate votes, then he (and on the Republican side it is definitely going to be a he) will secure the nomination regardless of what the party leadership, with its 600 unpledged votes, wants to have happen.
Of course, the candidate I’m most thinking of here is Donald Trump. I just don’t believe that any of the party leaders’ 600 unpledged votes are going to be cast for Trump, for the reason I mentioned above: Republican party leaders do not want Trump to be their presidential nominee, because that would mean the loss of their own, personal power over the party apparatus.
So, what this means is that the only way Trump gets the nomination is if he can manage to win two-thirds of the delegate votes awarded during the state contests. Or, said another way, Trump can only be the Republican nominee if he manages – prior to the convention – to pick up twice as many delegate votes as all the other Republican candidates combined. Now, I suppose Trump potentially could do just that, but the sheer numbers in play make it seem highly unlikely to me that he actually will. Judging from his favorable/unfavorable ratings in polls of Republican voters, Trump just doesn’t have that broad a base of support.
Nevertheless, I still fully expect him to do very well in the state contests because he is such a very, very moderate candidate.
Okay, no, I’m kidding. Trump actually is some kind of deranged proto-fascist, but he polls well with moderate Republicans and that is going to be key to securing delegate votes.
Here’s the deal. The crazy, hard-right, xenophobic Tea Party base of the GOP increasingly seems to be driving the party’s agenda. In the last election, Tea Party candidate David Brat ousted No. 2 Congressional Republican Eric Cantor largely because he campaigned on Cantor’s being “soft” on immigration. John Boehner just recently resigned his position as Speaker of the House when the Tea Party’s “Freedom Caucus” – which, let’s remember, only has about 40 members – threatened to forcibly oust him. And the Republican debates (another one Tuesday night!) have been marked, as usual, by candidates competing to see just how hard to the right they can run to pick up that sweet, sweet, crazy Republican base vote.
But to a very large degree, that sweet, sweet, crazy Republican base does not allocate the majority of the delegates during the primaries.
You see, in the contests held prior to March 15th, delegate votes are allotted proportionally, so they are going to get divided amongst several candidates depending on how well each does in a particular contest. More importantly, delegates are awarded both for how well a candidate does in a state on an overall basis and also how well the delegate does in each individual congressional district. And – here’s the key – each congressional district awards 3 delegates, no matter the political constituency of that district.
What does this all mean? Well, it’s kind of like the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. Senate is a profoundly undemocratic institution. Wyoming has a population of about 600,000, and it has two senators. California has population of 38.8 million, and it has two senators. The votes of 600,000 people in Wyoming carry the same weight, in the Senate, as do the votes of more than 60 times that number of people in California.
(It all goes back to the founding of the country, when small states, before they would agree to ratify the new constitution, had to be assured that larger states could not run roughshod over them in the new government. Interestingly, according to the Constitution itself, representation in the Senate is the one provision that is not subject to a Constitutional Amendment. Of course, the lawyer in me delights in pointing out that we could always amend the provision that says that the clause concerning Senate representation is not subject to amendment, and then that would allow us to amend the clause concerning Senate representation.)
So, if the voters in a deep, deep red district in, say, Texas, cast 150,000 votes for Mitt Romney in 2012, that district will allocate 3 delegates to whoever wins that district’s votes in next year’s Republican primary. And if the voters in a deep, deep blue district in, say, Vermont, cast only 2,000 votes for Mitt Romney in 2012, that district will also allocate 3 delegates to whoever wins that district’s votes next year in the Republican primary. In other words, for purposes of allocating Republican delegate votes, Republicans in moderate or liberal “blue” states have outsized voting power in the Republican primary.
This almost certainly was by design, by the way. For decades, it has been the received political wisdom on the right that the way to win the presidency is to (i) run hard to the right during the primaries to win the Republican nomination, and then (ii) run hard back to the center during the general election to win the presidency itself. (You may remember the Romney campaign, last time around, describing this as the “etch-a-sketch” strategy; they planned to simply change all their previously espoused positions when it came to the general campaign, assuming that everybody would simply forget what Romney had promised Republicans during the primary.)
By giving Republican voters who live in moderate districts the same delegate count as those who live in hard-core, deep-crazy conservative districts, the GOP almost certainly was hoping to tamp down on their own base so as to secure the nomination of a more moderate candidate who might have a chance to actually win the general election.
Okay, but how does this play out for 2016’s Republican candidates?
Well, I’m going to go ahead and just dismiss most of them. I mean, Perry, Walker, and Jindal already have withdrawn from the race, so they’re out. As for Bush, Graham, Christie, Carson, Paul, Kasich, Fiorino, Gilmore, Santorum, Huckabee, and Pataki, no one paying attention thinks that these candidates any longer have much of a shot at winning either, even though – for some reason – they keep insisting on showing up for the debates. No, I’m going to go with the received wisdom (at this point, anyway) and assume that the real nominating contest is between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.
And then I’m going to get rid of Ted Cruz. Cruz is one of the most loathed Senators to ever stalk that chamber’s corridors, and that loathing comes from members of his own party. They hate, hate, hate Ted Cruz. Moreover, I have never really believed that Ted Cruz even wants to be president. He has gone out of his way in his short time on the Hill to alienate anybody and everybody in the Republican leadership who might be a useful ally, all in an effort to suck up to the most reactionary members of the GOP electorate – the ones who make a lot of noise but have very little formal power.
No, I think Ted Cruz is actually running to be King of the Tea Partiers. Being the leader of the crazy caucus will yield Cruz a great deal of informal power within his party, it will ensure – barring some drastic demographic changes to the Texas electorate – his continued reelection to the Senate in perpetuity, and it will keep him wired into the grifting opportunities by which Republican political leaders/strategists fleece their base voters. (This fleecing has been going on since at least the 1960’s, when Richard Viguerie realized that voting lists could be harnessed to drive direct mail marketing/fundraising campaigns. The specific form of fleecing may have changed over the years – direct mail solicitations largely having been replaced by appeals made over talk radio, email, etc. – but the grift remains the same. See, e.g., Huckabee using his donor list to make money hawking diabetes “cures” based on biblical passages.)
But even if Ted Cruz is seriously running for president, casting himself as the arch-conservative of arch-conservatives is no way to win the nomination. Cruz is likely to do well in Iowa – a state where the Republican party famously votes strongly for evangelical, born-again, Christianist Republicans and a state in which Cruz has invested the bulk of his energy and money – but he simply is not going to be able to rack up very many delegate votes in any district other than the most hard-core conservative ones. Cruz is going to emerge from next year’s election with very high name recognition and great favorabilities with the Republican evangelicals/Tea Partiers, but he is not going to emerge as the GOP presidential nominee (like I said, it’s a grift).
So, that leaves us with Trump and Rubio.
Surprisingly, and despite his deeply pronounced authoritarianism, Trump does pretty well with moderate Republican voters. I recently saw a poll conducted by a couple of political scientists, and they broke down the Republican electorate into three categories: (i) moderate Republicans, defined as being to the left of Republican congressmen/senators, (ii) establishment Republicans, defined as being pretty well in line with Republican congressmen/senators, and (iii) conservative Republicans, defined as being to the right of Republican congressmen/senators. Trump had the support of 33-36% of the voters in each of these three camps.
So, sitting as he is at the top of the polls, and being fairly well-liked across the entire spectrum of the Republican electorate, Trump looks poised to do very, very well in next year’s primary contests. It seems likely he will do better than any other Republican candidate out there.
But the party leadership doesn’t want him.
Now think about this. If no one in the party leadership is willing to cast a delegate vote for Donald Trump, the man needs to win 1200 of the 1800 pledged delegate votes that are up for grabs prior to the Republican convention. But if the party leadership is willing to rally behind Marco Rubio, then Rubio only needs to win 600 of those votes. He can pick up the other 600 from the Republican leadership and insiders, who will cast their unpledged votes at the convention itself.
Rubio’s path to the nomination, thus, seems a heck if a lot easier than The Donald’s.
Moreover, I think Rubio’s campaign has figured this out. Rubio has been spending some ad monies in Iowa and New Hampshire, but has also been spending a lot of time in other, later voting states. This behavior has puzzled some professional campaign watchers. After all, Iowa and New Hampshire voters are used to getting their asses kissed every four years by high-powered politicians running for president. In fact, they demand it. Traditionally, if a candidate does not appear in these states to personally kiss ass, then that candidate will not win those states’ contests.
And, finally, for decades no one has won the GOP nomination without also winning at least one of these two first-in-the-nation states.
So what is Rubio doing?
Well, to be sure he’s playing what looks on the surface to be a dangerous game. Do you remember Rudy Giuliani’s campaign eight years ago? He was a national poll leader prior to any actual votes being cast, but he decided to sit out Iowa and New Hampshire and wait for later elections in which, presumably, he’d do better. However, by the time those later elections rolled around the media buzz was all about green room favorite John McCain (who stomped all over everybody to win New Hampshire), and Giuliani already had been relegated to the “also ran” category.
And that is the real reason doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire has been so important in the past: not for the actual delegates a candidate racks up in those early states, but for the delegates the candidate can rack up in later states based on the perception that now – having won Iowa and/or New Hampshire - the candidate is “a winner.” For example, in 2012 Iowa declared Mitt Romney the winner, but also that Rick Santorum had come in a surprisingly close second. This gave a boost to both Romney and Santorum’s campaigns – a boost that Santorum, certainly, desperately needed to remain viable. Weeks later, Iowa would change its mind and declare that, no, actually, Santorum had won the caucuses and Romney had come in a close second, but this revision didn’t really matter; what was more important was that Romney had been declared the winner, and he went on to win a bunch of later states and, eventually, the nomination itself.
(In fact, Santorum didn’t turn out to be the actual winner either. Of the 28 delegates that Iowa awarded in 2012, twenty-two went to Ron Paul, and zero went to Santorum. That is because, four years ago, the actual delegates were not awarded based on the results of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, but on the basis of later Iowa county and state Republican conventions; the first-in-the-nation caucuses were really nothing more than a non-binding popularity contest. However, this situation no longer obtains; my understanding of the new GOP rules is that there no longer are any non-binding contests.)
But Rubio isn’t a good fit for either Iowa or New Hampshire. He doesn’t get the evangelical blood pumping in Iowa the way that Ted Cruz does, and the Floridian faces stiff competition from Trump, Christie, and even Bush in New England’s New Hampshire. I think Rubio is making only token appearances in these two states because, when he loses both of them, his campaign can argue that he wasn’t really trying.
Of course, in previous election years this might have doomed his nomination chances, but Rubio is gambling that he will have the resources to keep his campaign alive going into what he hopes remains a very fractured primary season. Prior to March 15th, almost all the state-wide contests allocate delegates proportionally, and a lot of those states are not deep, deep red states. Although Trump’s support amongst moderate GOP voters is fairly good, he does still have some very high unfavorability ratings with voters who haven’t drunk the Trump Kool-Aid.
On the other hand, Rubio has been deliberately marketing himself as a moderate Republican too, and to be sure he doesn’t come across nearly as snarling as does Cruz (but then, really, who could?). Indeed, Rubio’s greatest perceived weakness with the crazy GOP base is his apostasy a few years back in pushing for immigration reform.
(Fresh off of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican party engaged in an “autopsy” of its campaign and decided – among other things – that it had to do a better job of reaching Latino voters. Silly, silly Marco took the party at its word, and got right to work trying to come up with a bipartisan immigration fix. This completely alienated the crazy nativist base of the Republican party, and Marco has been paying a price for his attempt to bring Latino voters into the GOP fold ever since.)
However, Rubio’s aborted attempt a few years ago to broaden the Republican party’s appeal to non-white voters may very well work to his advantage in the actual apportionment of delegate votes for 2016. With the other GOP candidates essentially out of the running (for reasons of voter perception, if nothing else) all Rubio needs to do is present himself as a moderate alternative to Donald Trump and try to rack up 600 or so delegates over the course of the next 5 months.
So, finally, here is my specific prediction . . .
We get to the Republican convention on July 18th with no declared winner. Trump will have the most pledged delegates of any candidate, maybe around 800 - 900 or so, or about half the delegates then available. The other half will be split up amongst various other candidates, with Rubio sitting at second place with 600+ votes. Political pundits will be slavering over the fact that we are going to have a “brokered convention,” and that will drive up TeeVee viewership for the convention itself.
However, the Republican party really, really does not want to have a “for real” brokered convention; they don’t want the TeeVee cameras to reveal to the American public a fractured party, riven with factions, trading votes back and forth and getting into rule disputes. (The Dems had one such convention back in 1972; George McGovern didn’t get the nomination until about 3:00 AM. When he gave his acceptance speech, America already was asleep. This is one, but only one, of the many reasons no one can recall a “President McGovern.”) Accordingly, the Republicans are going to want to have settled on a nominee by the end of the first round of voting, when things can still be kept under some kind of control, before everything goes “unpledged” and chaos takes over.
Which means the leadership will rally ‘round Rubio, and he will get as many of the unpledged delegate votes at the convention as necessary in order to put him over the top and secure the nomination in the first round of voting.
* * *
Which will be just delightful.
Trump will almost certainly be apoplectic at losing, as will the people who voted for him. How can it be, they will ask, that our guy won all the primary contests, and the Republican party just gave the nomination away to someone else? Remember, the political thinking this year is that Republican base voters are pissed that they keep voting Republicans into office and then those Republicans don’t do what they promised to do. They haven’t abolished Obamacare, they haven’t outlawed gay marriage, they haven’t criminalized abortion, they haven’t defunded Planned Parenthood, they haven’t declared open season on Mexicans, etc., etc., etc.
Of course, Republican Senators and Congressmen simply don’t have the power to do any of these things, but Americans are notorious for not understanding or even caring about how their government actually works. Hell, Americans tend to think that the president is “King of America,” and can basically order by fiat whatever he wants done. This is why more Americans vote during presidential elections than in off-year elections: they don’t think elections really mean anything unless the presidency is on the line.
But if the average American is clueless about their own government, how well do you think they understand the byzantine intricacies of their political parties’ nominating contests?
Of course, absolutely none of this matters to most voters. Most voters are children: they want what they want and they want it now and they are going to throw a temper tantrum unless they get it.
So, I stand by the prediction I made way back when Trump announced his candidacy. The leadership will never allow him to be the nominee, Republican voters who vote for Trump (and these voters do seem to really, really like him) will interpret the GOP’s denial of the nomination to Trump as a betrayal, and whoever the Democrats nominate (Hi, Hillary!) will basically waltz into the White House.
P.S. I should acknowledge that I have been known to be very wrong in some prior political predictions. For example, before Trump entered the race I thought Scott Walker was the candidate most likely to be the Republican nominee. Of course, Scott Walker ended up being the first guy to drop out of the race. When I get things wrong – and I often do – I get them very, very wrong.