Road to 2016 Analysis: Donald Trump, Primaries, Polling, and Populism

Note: This post turned out longer than I thought it would. Sorry for the long read.

Let’s be abundantly clear: Donald Trump is not going to be the next President of the United States. Donald Trump is also not going to be the Republican nominee for President.

This analysis shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise. The common consensus on the Trump campaign is that it is somewhere between a publicity stunt and a direct challenge at the Republican establishment. So, has the collective Republican Party (and every media outlet in the country) lost its mind? First, why would anyone give Mr. Trump airtime to express his opinions and, second, who in their right minds would listen to him?

There are valid answers to both of these questions, trust me, but before we can answer them, we need to take a look at a few trends in the current Republican race for the nomination.

Note that any and all predictions assume that the general foreign and economic policy situations remain, generally, the same. A crash in the market or a Russian invasion of the Baltic States would completely upend any predictions or speculation made here.

Trend One: Long Time, Short Time, Big Money

Listen for the oft-cited “seven months out of Iowa” this week from media and political outlets. This is meant to convey the sense that there is still a long time left in the 2016 political primary season. Obviously, this isn’t wrong. However, looking back at the Republican race in 2012, by July 2011 in that race, there had already been one early primary debate and all of the major candidates were in the race (but for Rick Perry, but then again, he wound up not being a major candidate). The 2008 campaign started even sooner with all of the major Republicans in the race by April 2007. The first debates of the 2008 primary were held in June, 2007.

As of today, there are fourteen Republicans in the race (Bush, Carson, Paul, Fiorina, Huckabee, Santorum, Trump, Rubio, Perry, Pataki, Jindal, Graham, Cruz, and Christie) as well as two major candidates set to declare imminently (Kasich and Walker). While there may be a few unknown candidates who drop in the race (Jim Gilmore), it’s safe to assume that the number of Republicans running is a solid 16 or 17. This is right about double the numbers from 2008 and 2012.

With the campaign kicking into gear with the first debates in August of this year, seven months will be an eternity to a front runner, but barely enough time to tie on shoes for candidates struggling for name recognition in early primaries. There is a good chance that the race could thin after the debates with low-polling candidates dropping out to endorse others who are polling higher. The problem with this model is that most candidates see themselves as being only one gaffe or “what was the third department” from their opponents from being center-stage. This issue is magnified by the amount of money that will likely be thrust into the race. Many of the candidate polling lower at this stage have significant financial resources to bring to bear. It’s a likely talking point that, with so many people in the race, polling at 5% means that you’re basically tied for 3rd or 4th within the margin of error.

Realistically, the only candidate that will likely drop out after the debates would be George Pataki. Whatever dark horse establishment alternative campaign he would try to run will be effectively subsumed by Christie or Kasich. With Bush likely to remain highest in the polls, it is unlikely that any of the hardcore conservatives will move to endorse Walker before the primaries.

Here are a few relevant dates for the candidates:

Proportional Awards

Monday February 1: Iowa

Obviously the Iowa Caucuses are what the media holds out as the first real test of a campaign. It is telling that the last several winners of Iowa have not gone on to win the Republican nomination. Iowa generally plays to the more conservative candidate in the field. At the moment, Iowa should go to Scott Walker, but any predictions this far in advance are not reasonable. The reality on the ground says that Iowa will not go to Jeb Bush, but rather to the chief conservative challenger. Iowa will be an effective bellwether for Rand Paul to see if he will be able to draw the kind of support that his father received in the state in 2008 and 2012. Iowa will likely not act as a winnowing fan for the myriad of social conservatives in the race because a disappointing finish in Iowa may mean only being five percentage points behind the ultimate winner. Moreover, if a candidate has a particularly large donor footing the bill for the campaign, there is really no reason to use a bad finish in Iowa to drop out.

Tuesday February 9: New Hampshire

New Hampshire is generally for the “establishment” candidate what Iowa is for the conservative. While saying that New Hampshire is a “must win” for Jeb Bush is hyperbole, losing to Christie, Kasich, or Paul in New Hampshire would be a significant setback to the message of inevitability. Bush should be able to pour money into New Hampshire to stave off a loss. If Pataki is still in the race at this point, he will likely leave and endorse Bush. Fiorina may also endorse Bush at this point if she’s out of cash.

Saturday February 20: South Carolina

The “first in the South” primary will be the test for the candidates who finished in a pack in Iowa. This is the make-or-break for the Lindsey Graham campaign. As one of the Palmetto State’s senators, South Carolina is Graham’s chance to break into the top tier of candidates if he is still in the race. South Carolina may be an impressive win for one of any number of conservatives who can start to roll momentum. At this point, we can only predict that Graham will do disproportionately well and Rand Paul will do disproportionately poorly. Paul will likely be focusing time and attention on Nevada. Anything but a win for Graham in South Carolina will likely mean Graham’s dropping out and endorsement of Bush (for a spot as Secretary of Defense in the Bush Administration).

Tuesday February 23: Nevada

Nevada changed from its traditional caucus over to a primary in 2016. This does not benefit Rand Paul, who will need a solid finish in Nevada to bring in fresh money. While Paul may finish in the top five in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is unlikely that he will score a win in either state. Consequently, Paul needs a win in Nevada while there are still over a dozen candidates in the race in order to secure a spot in the top tier. While a disappointing finish for Paul is unlikely to sink his campaign, a loss, especially to Bush, slides Paul closer to dropping out early.

Tuesday March 1: Super Tuesday: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia (North Dakota, presumably)

Super Tuesday may be effective at clearing lots of the conservative chaff from the race. Candidates like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and even Ted Cruz have to amass some delegates in these proportional races in order to convince donors of their campaigns’ viability. The must-win/place for Huckabee is his home state of Arkansas. Newt Gingrich won Georgia in 2012, so there’s some flexibility in thinking that it may also break against the grain for a non-frontrunner conservative. Texas is a must-win/place for Cruz, a Texas senator. Cruz beating Perry in Texas would end the Perry campaign. If Bush has yet to win a state by Super Tuesday, the pressure will be on to win Virginia, Massachusetts and Vermont to put himself squarely in the lead. It will be the goal of Christie and Kasich to prevent those Bush victories. Rand Paul’s best play at a first state if he fails in Nevada will likely be Minnesota or Colorado.

It’s a standard prediction that any candidate without any proportional delegates after Super Tuesday will drop out.

Saturday March 5: Louisiana (Kansas, Wyoming, and Washington, presumably)

Bobby Jindal, if he is still in the race on Super Tuesday, may try to stay in to make a run at getting his home state of Louisiana. However, this is merely conjecture. He’s not likely to win here so he may drop and save himself some campaign embarrassment. The other presumable states have 113 delegates between them.

Tuesday March 8: Hawaii, Mississippi, Michigan (Idaho, presumably)

If Walker is the frontrunning “conservative alternative” to the establishment figure, winning both Mississippi and Michigan will cement this image. March 8 is also the last day for proportional primaries. By this time, about half of the 2470 delegates will have been awarded (depending on when the primaries without firm dates get scheduled). At this juncture, it’s almost impossible to think that any candidate will have nearly the 50% needed to be the outright nominee. Rather, going in to the second phase of the campaign, it is more likely than not that Jeb Bush will remain ahead of other challengers but without any true commanding lead. While a single conservative alternative (at the time of writing this looks to be Scott Walker) will likely not have coalesced, there is a possibility that two or three conservative alternatives to Bush will be vying for the second-place spot.


Winner-Take-All Awards

Tuesday March 15: Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Missouri

This will likely be the most important vote of the Republican Primaries. If Marco Rubio loses to Jeb Bush in Florida, his campaign is over. Moreover, if John Kasich loses to Bush in Ohio, Kasich’s campaign is over. While Bush should win Florida, it remains unclear exactly what numbers he will be able to pull against Kasich in Ohio. While a Bush-Kasich ticket is looking more and more like what the “establishment” wing of the party is pushing for to take on Hillary, a Kasich win in Ohio could alter the balance of the race especially if Bush’s proportional delegate count is middling. If Rubio is somehow able to beat Bush in Florida, this seems very improbable given the numbers on the ground, and Bush loses Ohio, the race effectively explodes into four or five frontrunners and should guarantee a brokered convention.

Tuesday March 22: Arizona and Utah

Arizona may be in play for Democrats in the general election so it will be interesting to see who it breaks for in the primary. Also, the weight of John McCain’s endorsement will likely carry some weight if he decides to play politics in the race.

Tuesday April 5: Wisconsin

Obviously this is a must-win for the Walker campaign.

Tuesday April 26: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island (possibly New York- discussed in the “no firm date” section)

From the very early, unreliable, polling currently available, Pennsylvania is shaping up to be an interesting state for the 2016 general election. With Rand Paul polling higher than Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio doing better than expected, if Rubio was able to win in Florida, this may be his chance to break ahead of Bush’s total delegate count. Likewise, if Rand Paul has somehow managed to keep enough money and stay in the race, Pennsylvania would be an interesting play as a last bulwark of the campaign. Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island will likely break for Bush, though if Christie has maintained a presence anywhere, it’s in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Specifically, Christie helped Maryland’ first-term Republican Governor Larry Hogan in Hogan’s race in 2014. Hogan will likely be a strong Christie advocate in the latter’s run for the White House. If Christie is still in the race, this would be the time to make his presence felt.

Tuesday May 3: Indiana

Before the RFRA debacle, Governor Mike Pence looked like a strong Vice Presidential candidate. At this point, his endorsement may be helpful but Indiana will not be a critical primary.

Saturday May 7: Maine

Discussed generally in the “no firm date” section.

Tuesday May 10: Nebraska and West Virginia

Like Indiana, neither Nebraska nor West Virginia appear to be the keys to the primary. Because the delegate count could be extremely close, every state in the winner-take-all phase of the campaign will be an interesting fight.

Tuesday May 17: Kentucky and Oregon

If Rand Paul is still in the race, he will have to win Kentucky, his home state.

Tuesday June 7: California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota

At 172, California has the most delegates to the Republican convention. Coming this late in the primary season, for the last two elections, California has not been a deciding state. Winning Florida but not Ohio sees Bush at this juncture leading the pack with between 500 and 600 delegates (note: he’d need 1236 to secure the nomination). California’s 172 in addition to the other states in play on June 7 puts 303 delegates in play. Because a significant number of states still have not set a firm date for their primaries, it remains unclear exactly what the numbers situation looks like at this point in the campaign. However, it is very likely that Bush will have to carry both California and New Jersey to beat back a brokered convention.

Tuesday June 14: Washington DC

With 19 delegates, DC will likely not play a major part in the ultimate decision.

No Firm Dates: New York, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Washington, North Dakota and Wyoming

We are currently not sure when these primaries will be scheduled. This leaves 291 delegates unaccounted for. Moreover, New York’s 95 delegates are winner-take-all only if the winner gets more than 50% of the vote. Consequently, if New York puts itself early in the winner-take-all phase while Chris Christie is still in the race, there could be a plurality resulting in a proportional split of delegates.


Therefore, though the primaries will begin in seven months, the realities on the ground for the different campaigns are very clear. With Kasich and Walker announcing less than a month before the first Presidential Debates in August, time is very short to start creating messages that resonate with voters. Especially for the “interchangeable conservative” candidates like Carson, Huckabee, Perry, and Jindal the goal is to create a narrative wherein they can secure a consistent and dedicated bloc of voters. This is in contrast to Ted Cruz and Scott Walker who need to defend against conservative defections to different “flavors of the month.” Paul needs to define his libertarianism, Rubio needs to get out of Bush’s shadow, and Bush needs to avoid getting involved with any candidate not in the top five.

The debates are more about marketing than the issues. With a strong brand, a candidate will be able to draw in the finances and start to make firestops in states where delegates are the most promising. In a sense, this is a lot like a game of Risk (hence the reason why I’d predict a brokered convention at this stage): candidates will set up their principal states and make sure they get some numbers coming out. Others will set themselves up as spoilers (see: New York being proportional if no one gets 50% and Chris Christie v. Jeb Bush).

In the context of Donald Trump, he is an “X factor” in all of these, generally straightforward, calculi. With regard to marketing and finance, Donald Trump is, love him or hate him, extremely effective. This is, quite simply, because the man is not a politician. Trump has no fear of the “gotcha” question or the carefully crafted policy roadmap. Trump knows that he doesn’t need a policy roadmap or a designed budget. This frees him to say what he wants and make direct appeals to the emotions of the Republican base. Whereas a candidate like Jeb Bush needs to present a strategy for governing that does not involve alienating all of Latin America, Trump can simply write off everything south of Texas as being an economic drag full of criminals. When called on this blatantly offensive characterization, Trump can shrug and not apologize. Why would Trump apologize?

The more blunt his statement, the more air time he will get and the more he can push his message to voters. The Trump “X factor” is not his vote tallies. While people are not always successful at choosing the best individuals for public office, the majority realize that the polling station is not American Idol and will vote with their economic and security interests at heart. Trump’s generalities will not ultimately garner votes despite the fact that many hard-line conservatives will applaud his blunt characterization of America’s policies.

Rather, the problem with Trump is that he will force other Republicans to engage with him in debates. Trump will have a free hand to say anything he wants while his legitimate opponents will be forced to scale their rhetoric. The result will either be: other candidates looking afraid to actually take a stand on policy issues or other candidates looking crazy and endorsing a Trump proposal. Non-engagement would be a strategy if Trump were not allowed in the debates, but not only is Trump polling high enough, but it will also get great ratings for whatever network has a debate.

Trend Two: The Coronation Storyline

Around December of 2014, most mainstream news outlets embraced the storyline that Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee in 2016. The reasons for this were numerous and stretched from his moderate appeal, his ability to carry Florida, his name recognition, and his fundraising apparatus.

While issues like the vaccine controversy, Ebola, the early frontrunning of Scott Walker, and whatever other issue was at the fore of the discussion of a particular week, Jeb Bush remained the general consensus candidate that media outlets saw as having the best potential to be the Republican nominee. This analysis has generally held in most polling and Bush is currently the frontrunner. Trump getting in the race has disrupted this narrative.

Now, it remains to be seen to what degree Trump will fade into obscurity as the primaries drift in the direction of real policy over rhetoric. Name-calling will likely diminish in effectiveness if Trump doesn’t produce hard and fast numbers to support his ideas and boasts. However, media outlets have found that Trump is an effective gimmick. The Donald Trump narrative has effectively taken the Bush ascendency off of the “front page.” Everyone, including your humble blogger, is spending time talking about Donald Trump and devoting pixel after pixel to an analysis of the Trump campaign.

Are we all really just that bored and gullible? Well, yes, to some degree, but, in the alternative, Trump does seem to have hit a particular nerve in the conservative base that resounded more than anyone anticipated. I will stress that this is unlikely to transform into votes, but it works as a block to the readership and viewership of the Jeb Bush storyline. Effectively, Bush remains well-known, but he is not insulated from attacks in debates. In another sense, the Trump narrative makes it so that Bush’s campaign does not have a hard definition in time to deal with the likely probing attacks of other candidates.

Trend Three: Destructive/Constructive Populism

The truly unforeseen impact of Donald Trump could be his run as a self-funded independent later in the race. This is a similar concern to the one in the pit of the stomach of Democrat strategists: what if Bernie Sanders decides to run as an independent? Obviously neither Trump nor Sanders will have the ability to mount a successful Third-Party challenge to the establishment, but a Trump-(Carson?) would pull significant numbers away from Bush-Kasich. Sanders would probably do better pulling voters from Hillary than Trump would against Bush. Either way, a challenger from the extreme would act as a vote-sink than could cost a candidate the 3-5% of the vote that he or she would need in swing states.

While it is still way too far from any Third-Party decisions on the part of Trump or Sanders, it’s an important speculation to consider early in the race. While the two men, politically, are about as far apart politically as is possible, both appeal to a growing discontent on their respective sides of the aisle that should come as a threat to the establishment. This is certainly nothing new in politics, but 2016 has the possibility of having a distinctly “us against them” feeling on both the left and the right.

With regards to the Republicans, the populist movement that spawned the Tea Party has fractured into hundreds of different directions. Some of the movement has been co-opted by the establishment of the Party, some has funneled into Libertarian movements, and the rest seems to be caught up in “I’m really angry and no one listens to me.”

This last group is the group that feels disenfranchised. In a sense, they are. They feel that the Party has betrayed them over and over again and they’d rather get rid of everyone in Washington than pick an establishment Republican chosen by who they see as the elites. This group does not make up a majority of the Party by any stretch of the imagination. While there’s no poll numbers, it would be safe to assume that these folks make up somewhere around 10% of the Republican Party. (Note, these are not the Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals who feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction, they make up a much larger percentage of the Republican base, but are generally more supportive of “outsider-but-still-mainstream” candidates like Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee).

We can expect this 10% to be very vocal and very active in the primary. What remains unclear is how this group will react when there is no “true” conservative on the eventual Presidential ballot. An appeal to populism by the likes of a Donald Trump running as an independent may be enough to pull votes from a Bush-Kasich ticket. (We can also imagine a strong Libertarian candidate having a great run in 2016 if it’s Bush v. Hillary).

On the left, much of the same logic applies. Bernie Sanders likely has a cap in his support somewhere south of 20%. While Elizabeth Warren may have made a run at 30%, Sanders just is not going to have the momentum to bring down the Clinton campaign in the primary. (Even if Joe Biden gets in the race, Sanders will not be able to pull a plurality. Also, his “flavor of the month” status will be gone and he’ll bleed supporters to Biden.).

However, like Warren, Sanders has appealed to progressive populism generally established in the “Occupy” movement but reinforced in a liberal anti-Obama sentiment that has been growing on the left. While Obama remains nominally popular among progressives, a movement towards Hillary is not seen as a step towards real progress. Conversely, Hillary is seen as a step towards moderation and accommodation of Wall Street and growing the inequality gap in America. The Sanders position is pure populist “us versus them” rhetoric.

The consequence of this will be one of several possibilities: Hillary is forced to move to the left to accommodate these voices, Joe Biden enters the race and drains moderates from Hillary and progressives from Sanders to become the frontrunner, or Sanders refuses to endorse Hillary who has not moved far enough left and decides a, independent run is in his best interest.

Both the Trump and Sanders independent runs seem unlikely at this point. However, the populist percentage on both sides will be especially vocal given the “90’s feel” of a Bush v. Clinton campaign. Both sides will feel that the candidates have been chosen for them by the elites in the Party and that the candidates are being bankrolled by major corporations and institutions. In the end, a populist groundswell can probably be bought off with promises and huge campaign spending, but the question for Election Day is to what extent voter turnout and enthusiasm will be diminished by what voters perceive as a lack of choice.


There is a lot of time between now and the 2016 elections. There is a strong chance that looking back on this post with the benefit of hindsight will reveal huge gaps and assumptions that do not pan out over the course of the next year-and-a-half. Regardless, this variable stage of the campaign is unpredictably volatile. Especially before candidates have been able to fully clothe themselves in their slogans and messages, a candidate like Donald Trump with nothing to lose will be an “X factor” that could significantly alter the dynamic of the Presidential race.

To end on a personal note, I don’t think that the candidacy of Donald Trump is appropriate. His rhetoric and campaign policies have already shown that he has no intention of running as a serious candidate. This is not to say he doesn’t appeal to voters. I certainly see that a blunt anti-politician can make an impassioned mark on people’s discontent.

However, demagoguery is precisely what the nation does not need. Rather, boring, sober, adult policies are needed to bring the nation’s finances in order, address the growing threats abroad, and cool simmering tensions at home. Trump is the political equivalent of a berserker. He will flail around in the debates and in the public eye without any care as to the ramifications of his actions. Campaigns must engage Trump so as not to look cowardly, but also must steer clear of the rhetorical mire of Trumpisms. The most effective way of dealing with Trump (or any ideologue) is to ask for concrete plans and solutions. Mr. Trump, how do you pay for this? Mr. Trump, can you give us numbers to back up this contention?

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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