Handicapping the GOP Race Past Iowa

by Stuart Rothenberg February 1, 2016 · 9:30 AM EST

Have we entered a new period in American politics, when establishment candidates on the GOP side don’t win their party’s nomination? That is the question I posed in a June 4, 2015 column. It is still a relevant question.

While I answered that it is a mistake to assume that the establishment candidate would inevitably win the GOP nomination, I doubted that combative candidates such as Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, could pass the smell test for most Republicans.

But with the caucuses upon us, Trump and Cruz are battling it out in Iowa and in national surveys, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is the only Republican with pragmatist appeal to show any life in both Iowa and national polls

Republicans are apparently so angry, so dissatisfied with “politics as usual,” that they may make a very unusual decision: nominating a candidate who both lacks government experience and the measured responses that we have come to expect from our elected officials, or nominating someone who is so confrontational that he already insists he won’t compromise with political opponents.

Either choice would make 2016 an echo of 1964, when insurgent Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination, defeating establishment alternatives Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. But unlike 1964, when the Democratic Party was well-positioned for the presidential election, it now finds itself no better off than the GOP as Iowa approaches.

Of course, Iowa rarely decides the winner in the Republican contest, and the strange makeup and dynamic of this year’s race continues to suggest a three-way contest for the near future, with Trump, Cruz and a third candidate with appeal to pragmatists — probably Rubio — fighting it out.

While Rubio has shown clear separation in Iowa from alternatives such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich (in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll), the Florida senator is merely one hopeful in the pack in the Granite State.

Given the polls and the early Republican calendar, why not simply jump wholeheartedly on the Trump or Cruz bandwagons?  Why not conclude that if Trump wins the first two states, he will run the table?

While early state and national polls leave no doubt about the two front-runners, the calendar, the makeup of the Republican field and the makeup of the Republican Party make a three-way fight likely.

Trump and Cruz have their enthusiastic supporters, but a chunk of the party obviously has serious reservations about both men. If a third candidate can stay alive in the race until mid-March — and that is likely but not certain — the contests of March 15, the first day when winner-take-all primaries are allowed, could become critical.

Under normal circumstances, if Trump were to win the first two contests, the race would be over. But this year is not normal (as well already have seen). A credible Cruz showing in Iowa could well keep him in the race as a conservative alternative to Trump, and a strong Rubio showing in Iowa, and possibly New Hampshire, would anoint him as the pragmatic alternative in the race.

That would take the race to South Carolina, Nevada and the March 1st contests, where Trump and Cruz again have an advantage, and where the two men could open up considerable delegate separation from any other remaining candidates. But, they would also keep each other from gaining even more separation from the rest of the field.

February’s four contests will allocate 121 pledged delegates, while there are almost 600 pledged delegates at stake in the March 1st contests, according to the Republican National Committee’s website.

The key question is how those early delegates divide and how many candidates survive into March, which has a total of 25 contests.

Three big states — Florida, Ohio and Illinois — hold their primaries on March 15, and both Florida and Ohio select their at-large and district pledged delegates on the basis of the statewide, winner-take-all vote.

If Trump or Cruz were to sweep those states, the race would be over. But a strong showing in the March 15 contests by a more pragmatic conservative could erase much of the delegate advantage that the two anti-establishment hopefuls built up over the contest’s first six weeks. That obviously would shake up the race.

After that comes April, with another batch of contests and delegates. Wisconsin’s April 5th primary would get attention, followed by six Northeast, generally Democratic states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — with a considerable 249 pledged delegates at stake.

Can a pragmatic conservative survive until March 15 or even April? That certainly is not yet clear. But the calendar presents some interesting opportunities and challenges for all of the candidates, if no single hopeful lands a knockout punch early.

For now, Trump and Cruz have established themselves as the front-runners for the GOP. But given that unexpected development, why should anyone assume that the Republican race will follow previous paths to the party’s national convention in Cleveland?