The What Ifs of the 2016 GOP Presidential Race

by Stuart Rothenberg April 20, 2015 · 9:28 AM EDT

If Jeb Bush doesn’t win any of the first four GOP contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — does that eliminate him from the Republican race? Or does he have the staying power to survive those losses?

If Texas Sen. Ted Cruz finishes first in the Iowa caucuses, does that all but eliminate hopefuls such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Ben Carson from the race?

If Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul finishes fourth in Iowa (which would be worse than his father’s third-place showing in the caucuses in 2012), can he come back in New Hampshire or Nevada? Are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a mini-contest of their own, with only one able to survive the February contests?

We all love to “game out” crowded presidential contests, just like we do football games, the stock market and future episodes of “Homeland.” It’s fun, after all, and if we get things right we can smugly point to our great analysis and instincts.

But when I was speaking recently to a veteran Republican consultant (who will be deeply involved in the race) about various possible scenarios, he brought me back to reality with three short words: Don’t do it.

His point was equally simple — there are so many possible scenarios and so many uncertainties that gaming out the race for the GOP nomination is not only a waste of time, but an exercise in futility.

Every question about possible 2016 scenarios generates five other questions.

I have a pretty good idea about Jeb Bush’s future if he finishes fifth in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, or if one candidate wins all four and the former Florida governor doesn’t place in the top two in any of them.

But what if four different candidates win each of the February contests and Bush finishes second or third in each one? How close was Bush’s second place finish? Who came in second if he didn’t?

If Jindal wins Iowa, would that destroy Cruz’s prospects to emerge as the movement conservative standard-bearer or force Huckabee, or Santorum or Carson, out of the race? That depends, of course, on exactly how well each of the hopefuls did.

What if Bush and Rubio face off in Florida? Wouldn’t the loser be eliminated? The answer is “probably,” but even then I’d want to know how the two hopefuls had done to that point and what the margin was in the primary.

The point, of course, is that many things matter — who “wins” a contest, what the margin is, how others fare in each race and how early results effect the makeup of the field, which will have a role in the race. And obviously, expectations play a role in the entire contest.

This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t continue to game out the Republican race. If it’s fun, do it. It doesn’t hurt anyone. But if you play that game, you probably ought to acknowledge the innumerable scenarios and admit you really have no idea what the heck will happen.