Who Will Win the Republican Primary?

(PPFA note: this is the fourth straight post with predictions. For the Iowa caucuses tonight, click here for my Republican prediction and here for my Democratic one. For my overall Democratic Primary predictions from earlier today, click here.)

Not only is today the day of the Iowa caucuses, but it’s also the first of the month, which means it’s time for the latest (and perhaps last) installment of the GOP Power Rankings. Furthermore, since America is about to start voting, it’s also time to lock in my prediction for the Republican nomination and answer the question, “Who will win the Republican Primary?”

For this month’s rankings, I’ll only briefly list the non-contenders, as I want to spend more time on the guys with a chance. Moreover, most of the candidates haven’t shifted much in the last month. There has been some movement at the top, however.

Let’s get to it. Remember, the Power Rankings organize candidates in likelihood of winning the Republican nomination.

Tier 4: Dead
Rick Perry
Scott Walker
Bobby Jindal
Lndsey Graham
George Pataki

Tier 3: On Death’s Door (As always, previous rankings are in parentheses, going back in time from January, to DecemberNovember, and then October.)
12. Jim Gilmore  (12, 13, 14, 14)
11. Rick Santorum (11, 12, 11, 11)
10. Mike Huckabee (10, 11, 10, 10) 
9. Carly Fiorina (9, 8, 8, 6)
8. Rand Paul (8, 10, 12, 12)
7. Ben Carson (7, 7, 5, 8)

No movement in the last month here. For ranking justifications, just go read January’s. Paul’s looking feisty, but his ceiling is still pretty low across the party.

Tier 2: Hanging on for Dear Life

Before I get to the ranking inside Tier 2, I must first admit that I struggled with it. In some order we’ll once again have the New Hampshire hopefuls: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. It’s a tough trio to rank. Each are banking on a strong New Hampshire result in order to catapult them into national contention. If I were to rank the likelihood of a strong New Hampshire result, I’d go Kasich first, then Bush, then Christie. But to win the nomination, each candidate would have to then convert their New Hampshire performance into something palatable to Republicans across the country. Due to their moderate records, each would struggle with that conversion. If I had to rank them on that ability — the ability to win over national Republicans — I’d go Christie, then Bush, then Kasich. Unfortunately, that’s the reverse order, so that didn’t help one bit.

I therefore had to determine not just a hierarchy in those two categories, but relative strength in each category and which category meant more. After considering that, this is what I came up with for February’s Tier 2:

6. Jeb Bush (5, 5, 3, 2)
5. John Kasich (6, 6, 7, 5)
4. Chris Christie (4, 4, 4, 4)

Bush’s slow tumble resumes. In both categories mentioned above — chances to win New Hampshire and ability to appeal nationally — I think he only narrowly edges out third place. Take New Hampshire. He hasn’t shown nearly as much growth as Kasich over the last few weeks, but he has been stronger than Christie. Check out their Huffington Post polling trendlines over the last two months:

Kasich, Bush, Christie

We see three different trends here: Christie fading, Bush slowly climbing, and Kasich ascending more rapidly. Hence my Kasich-Bush-Christie ranking for the Granite State.

That being said, with so many late deciders still in play, New Hampshire can be turbulent. There’s still time — eight days, to be exact — for Christie to turn it around and make a run, eclipsing Bush’s minimal gains. It’s likelier to reverse momentum in one state than an entire country.

On the other hand, if we consider national Republicans, Kasich has shown little ability to connect. He is adopting the 2012 playbook of the failed Jon Huntsman campaign. Since September, Kasich has pathetically polled between 1 to 4 points nationally, and he only qualified for recent debates due to New Hampshire polling. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll agrees with this ranking of their national chances. FiveThirtyEight conveniently put into a chart the percentage of Republicans who “could see themselves supporting” each candidate:


It’s looking terrible for Kasich to click beyond New Hampshire. I weigh that disadvantage more heavily than his New Hampshire advantage when ranking this tier. Similarly, Bush also has limited national potential. He has notoriously high unfavorable ratings in the party — the only contender’s consistently worse than Trump’s — and if we had nickels for every time one of us heard, “Not another Bush,” we’d all have Trump money. It’s Christie that has shown the best ability in this group to win over voters. After starting in the basement, his favorability among Republicans has been on a slow but constant climb through the fall and winter. Moreover, he talks a strong and loud conservative game, which might be a place where Trump voters turn to if Trump collapses. (If Trump doesn’t collapse, none of these guys can win anyway.)

Still, all three extremely unlikely nominees have under a ten percent chance to win the Republican Primary.

Time for those with a realistic shot…

Tier 1: The Co-Favorites

Here was their ranking LAST month:
3. Donald Trump (3, 6, 7)
2. Ted Cruz (2, 2, 3)
1. Marco Rubio (1, 1, 1)

We do have a change. Ted Cruz has been roughed up a bit, so we’ll start there:

3. Ted Cruz (2, 2, 2, 3)

It was a great campaign, perfectly run until the last couple weeks. Then, however, he relied on Trump’s “New York values” but was instead left with his own “Canadian birthplace.” His steady growth was stymied. Here is his Huffington Post national polling trendline dating back to October:


That peak coincided with his failed Trump offensive. We see a similar development in Iowa:


While yesterday I predicted that he’d still win the state, his ability to win it by enough that it catapults him into being the favorite has been lost. It’s much more likely that he loses Iowa than wins it convincingly.

There was also a stretch where some considered Cruz to be a potential compromise candidate between Trump’s antiestablishment base and the mainstream Republicans who wanted to keep the billionaire away from the nomination. Among other January problems for Cruz, though, was the GOP rallying the wagons against him. Not one fellow U.S. senator has endorsed him, and many establishment Republicans have openly bristled at a Cruz nomination. He was potentially more anathema to Republican leaders than Trump was! So no help there, either.

Ultimately, if the Republican Party can gain control of this process, they’ll push Rubio to the convention. If they can’t, then it’s clear that barring something dramatic and unforeseen, it’s Trump that will be the choice of antiestablishment voters. Therefore, Cruz is ranked third behind both of them and could be considered a tier unto himself, half way between Tiers 1 and 2.

Which brings us to the big dogs…

I’m not proud of it, but at different times I considered both A) Remaining with Rubio, like I had for the last four months, because if he won I could say I stuck to my guns when everyone else jumped ship to Trump; and B) Switching to Trump, so in case he won, I at least could say that I got my final pick right, which is all that matters. In both cases, I cared more about perception than prediction.

Shame on me for those considerations. What follows is who I actually think will win and the most likely way it will happen.

How many times have we (I) been wrong about the Trump? Too many to count. When he entered the race, he was a joke. Within a month, he said he’s build a wall on the southern border that Mexico would pay for, while also saying that Mexico was sending its rapists and murderers into our country. We ruled him out of contention, even as his polls climbed. By summer’s end, he was critical of John McCain and other American prisoners of war. Surely his surge was over, we told ourselves. Yet, he climbed some more. His debates were utterly void of substance and his post-debate comments about Megyn Kelly were disgusting, but it didn’t matter. This pattern went on and on. We ruled out Trump, Trump grew stronger.

Here are his Huffington Post polling trendlines nationally and in the important early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. They go from when he announced and into January:



Unrelenting, incomprehensible, indomitable growth. Then, when his general election numbers started looking competitive against Hillary Clinton, even more Republicans started talking themselves into a Trump nomination.

So then, one by one, the punditry class, that fawning Fourth Estate that helped create the beast, gradually acquiesced. They eventually started calling Donald Trump the “frontrunner” for the Republican nomination. We are indeed heading toward a Trump nomination, they said.

But they’re wrong.

To win the Republican nomination, a candidate needs to win a majority of the 2,472 delegates at the Republican National Convention. The loyalty of the delegates are determined by the primaries and caucuses of the 56 U.S. states and territories. The primary process is therefore a race to earn 1,237 delegates from those 56 contests. It’s all about delegate math.

Trump does indeed appear to be in the driver’s seat. His national polls show him in the mid-30s, well ahead of the pack. And yet, his growth has slowed considerably. After a constant ballooning of support, he hit a ceiling. Admittedly, you’ve heard this fact before from other places. The pro-Trump counterarguments are usually that Mitt Romney also hit a ceiling before voting, yet after early successes he still won the nomination.

But what’s rarely factored is where those voters are coming from. Trump’s national numbers are dominant because he’s doing extremely well in the most sparsely populated states in the country — those in the South and Midwest. These are states with relatively small delegation sizes at the national convention.

What about other states, though? Here are a few of the most recent polls in other states, all completed in January, or “peak Trump”:

  • In the latest poll from the largest state, California, he’s only at 23 points, and he was trailing Cruz.
  • In the second largest state, Texas, he’s trailing its senator, Ted Cruz, by 15 points.
  • In Pennsylvania, he’s only at 24 points. Three-quarters of that sizable state still says no to Trump.
  • Minnesota: Trump is in third at 18 points behind Rubio then Cruz.

Very little attention is given to these other states, and understandably so. Usually, great successes from the early states, where Trump is doing well, usually leads to success everywhere else. However, we’ve never seen a candidate that so much of the party resists. Trump struggles with favorability and second-choice preferences. Those two categories are where Rubio excel. In other words, Trump’s greatest weakness is Rubio’s greatest strength.

Why is that important? It’s because despite us being in campaign season for eight months, we’re just getting started with people having to make their final decisions. We’re going to lose half the field between now and late next week, and only two or three viable candidates will survive beyond Super Tuesday on March 1. People who vote after February and currently support the candidates who drop out before then will turn to someone else, and there’s probably a reason why they haven’t supported Trump yet. Favorability and second-choice statistics suggest Rubio will inherit a bulk of that support while Trump will inherit little.

Just as important is that after Trump’s early successes in conservative Iowa, South Carolina, and then the “SEC Primary,” the states on the calendar turn more purple and blue. These states have more moderate Republicans. As those California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota polls showed you, those places are not nearly as big Trump fans as those who vote in the early part of the primary schedule. Moreover, these are big states with lots of delegates despite them having, as a percentage of the state, fewer Republicans. In sum, as the New York Times and FiveThirty Eight point out, the power of “blue state Republicans” is decidedly disproportionate. Their votes mean more.

It’s why the Trump-Romney comparison doesn’t work. Not only did Romney have enormous institutional support from party leaders (while Trump has none), but he was also most popular in the big, moderate states.

For whom will these states use that disproportionate power this time?

Marco Rubio. He’s just now starting his surge. I’ve spoken many times about the importance of timing when it comes to surges. Fiorina surged in September, then collapsed. Carson followed in October and November, then did the same. It then became Cruz’s turn, but we’ve seen that peter in recent weeks. Christie’s surge never reached competitive heights, and it was over before you could blink. All of them surged too early. Once a surge is over, a second becomes almost impossible.

Timing is everything, and Rubio is about to take off. While all contenders have spent their recent days in Iowa, it’s Rubio that has gained the most.

Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Bush

Rubio is rising at the right time in Iowa, and he’ll beat expectations tonight because of it. That will get him an “Iowa bump” heading into New Hampshire, and he’s already a strong third in South Carolina polling.

With his success, one by one the establishment lane will clear and their supporters will turn to Rubio. Meanwhile, many of the numerous undecided voters out there are waiting for the Republicans to figure out who the party’s guy will be. By March, only Rubio will remain, and the party’s money and surrogacy network will finally show some semblance of unity just as the states turn moderate. Rubio will have the ability to rack up huge delegate totals in those big blue states. And remember: it’s all about the delegates.

Boosting this surge will be the undeniable conclusion that while Trump has highest general election unfavorables for a presidential candidate in at least 25 years, Rubio is the most electable candidate in either party. The playbook for beating Hillary Clinton was already penned by Barack Obama eight years ago. Rubio is a perfect foil for her. He’s the most qualified foreign policy candidate of the contenders. His youth and representation of the future contrasts what Hillary Clinton brings to the table. His relative lack of wealth makes it hard to place him in the pocket of the 1 percent, not only in comparison to the party’s 2012 nominee, but to Clinton herself. In essence, he’s in a great position to emulate what Senator Obama did against Clinton and then John McCain in 2008; he’s a fresh-faced, well-spoken, minority candidate taking on a fossilized also-ran of decades past. Oh, and he’s from Florida, the prized swing state of the general election swing state. It’s like he was created in a laboratory just for this occasion. For just this election.

For these reasons, Marco Rubio is your 2016 Republican nominee.

2. Donald Trump (3, 3, 6, 7)
1. Marco Rubio (1, 1, 1, 1)


16 thoughts on “Who Will Win the Republican Primary?”

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