RealClearPolitics political analyst Sean Trende is one of the clear-eyed, analytic observers of American politics, and I usually find myself nodding in agreement when I read his invariably thoughtful stuff.
That didn’t happen when I was reading his Dec. 10 piece , “Laying Odds on the GOP Presidential Race.”
Trende writes that he is rating “the chances of the various candidates winning the Republican nomination,” not merely ranking them from most likely to least likely. He gives each Republican a percentage chance of being the GOP nominee.
He starts off giving four hopefuls — Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum — zero chance of being the Republican nominee, an assessment with which I will not argue. I’m a little uncomfortable putting Graham, and even Santorum, in the same category as Gilmore and Pataki, but none of the four has any chance of being nominated in Cleveland in July.
Trende then rates Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee as each having a 1 percent chance of winning the GOP nomination. In fact, neither one has any chance of being nominated. No chance, as in zero, zilch, zip, nada, nothing.
We all understand Trende is trying to make a distinction between Paul and Huckabee, on one hand, and Gilmore, Pataki, Graham and Santorum, on the other, in terms of campaign organization, standing in the early polls and other considerations. But on the basis of the standard that he set up, all six of the Republicans fall into the same “zero chance” category.
Trende then goes on to give Carly Fiorina and John Kasich each a 2 percent chance of being nominated, Ben Carson a 3 percent chance and Jeb Bush a 5 percent chance. Talk about splitting hairs.
Given where she is in the polls and where her competition is, Fiorina’s chances are approaching zero. That's only slightly worse than Kasich’s, who is depending on a miracle in New Hampshire and the implosion of the rest of the pragmatic candidates.
As for Carson and Bush, if you were once near the top but have fallen to near the bottom, your chances are approaching zero. Bush has gone nowhere after spending more than $20 million, and his negatives remain very high among Republicans.
Trying to be as generous as possible (it’s the holiday season, after all), I’d lump Bush, Kasich, Fiorina and Carson in an “everyone else” category and give any or all of the hopefuls in it a 5 percent chance of being nominated.
That leaves four Republicans still worth considering.
Trende gives Chris Christie a 10 percent chance, Ted Cruz 15 percent, Marco Rubio 16 percent and Donald Trump a 20 percent chance.
I’d give Christie only a 5 percent chance, because even if he were to win New Hampshire (which he must do), his options would be limited and he probably could not survive the assaults on him that would come quickly. Still, with Rubio the sole other remaining pragmatic candidate in the race with appeal, Christie should not be discounted completely.
After Christie, I part company from Trende’s ratings dramatically.
“How can you not have the candidate who leads in the polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as the most likely nominee? The answer, pretty plainly, is that you can’t,” writes Trende, justifying his decision to make Trump the single most likely nominee.
Poppycock. I don’t see Trump as the most likely nominee, and no, a candidate’s prospects don’t automatically follow from his or her standing in the most recent polls — at least not the way I do handicapping.
Polls tell us how voters (or adults, or registered voters, or likely voters) feel at a certain moment, and they can inform us about how those voters see the candidates. But the polls don’t always tell us what will happen in 10 months or in two months.
Trump’s ceiling is well below 50 percent of the party, and while he can win some early caucuses and primaries because of the crowded fields, I’m skeptical he can be competitive when the field shakes down to a few serious hopefuls.
Of course, Trump has some chance of winning the GOP nomination (certainly more than I ever expected), if only because it is possible that many candidates stay in the race, either because they believe they can ultimately prevail or because they think a deadlocked convention is possible.
So, I’d give Trump no more than a 20 percent chance of being the GOP nominee. That’s the same number Trende gave him, but it places him far behind the front-runners on my list, not as the most likely nominee in Trende’s case. Trump’s weakness in Iowa is more important than his strength in national polls.
I continue to believe that either Cruz or Rubio will be the nominee, and that there is close to a 75 percent chance that one of them will be nominated. I’m not certain which one is the favorite — my guess changes from week to week — but they both have clear paths to Cleveland.
Cruz is well-positioned for Iowa and should do very well on Super Tuesday. As the preferred candidate of evangelicals and social conservatives, he could also be the favorite of anti-establishment tea party voters if and when Trump exits the race.
Rubio has potentially broad appeal in the party, but his strength ultimately rests on his appeal to pragmatic conservatives. He is the most likely hopeful to rally the Bush/Romney wing of the party, and his potential strength in “blue states” (many of which have winner-take-all primaries) gives him great upside potential.
Trump’s chances almost certainly hinge on one thing: the number of candidates. The larger the field, the better Trump’s prospects.