The Road to 2016: Ted Cruz Might Win Iowa, but it Won’t Matter to President Rubio

Disclaimer: Matt McDaniel, the author of this piece is a candidate for the First District City Council Seat in Baltimore City. While this article does not touch or concern Mr. McDaniel’s race, in the interest of disclosure, Mr. McDaniel has made no endorsements of any candidates and has received no money or funding from any candidate. His campaign website can be found here.

Talk about a provocative title! I promise that I am, indeed, still looking at polling and the numbers, but if you’ll indulge a bit of a joyride, let’s talk about a “potential future” today.

As we have been predicting here for a while, Texas Senator Ted Cruz looks to be the “outsiders’ insider” who can go the distance in the GOP Presidential primaries. Not only has Senator Cruz been in the race the longest, but he has also raised the largest amount of money of any of the GOP contenders. Despite his short tenure in the Senate, he has already developed a “maverick” reputation that has made him despised by the Washington elite and adored by the hard-right. Unlike Marco Rubio, whose junior status in the Senate invites comparisons to Barack Obama among Republicans, Cruz has embraced the image and run as an outsider looking to change the DC establishment.

Cruz has been the biggest gambler in the 2016 field and, while the payoff still has not arrived, we can see that he’s been counting the cards. From the beginning, Cruz has refrained from criticizing Donald Trump and has latched on to the populist messaging. In addition, Cruz has sculpted an image as being favorable to the conservative-evangelical position. These positions are compounded by taking hard-right stands against the establishment of the Party and against the President. Capped by big fundraising and solid debate performances, Cruz is the most likely candidate to consolidate support after the “flavor of the month” period dissipates.

Is Donald Trump a “flavor of the month?” The answer is clearly “no.” Trump’s support comes from the 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 GOP voters who have decided, Howard Beale-like, that they are mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore. Trump is the embodiment of this populist disgust with Washington and any form of establishment. It matters less what Trump is saying than what he represents: a confident, incorruptible, unapologetic, America-first strongman. To his supporters, Trump embodies all of the things that President Obama is not. Trump’s supporters see Obama as a vacillating, weak, accomodationist who has sold out American interests in favor of moving the nation towards a progressive worldview. To the Trump supporter, the Republican Party has been utterly spineless in resisting Obama and deserves to be thrown into the dustbin of history with the outgoing President. Compounding these feelings is the fact that Trump is, like him or not, a very effective marketer. You may not know the hard numbers of Trump’s plans, but you know his slogans. Talking at an elementary level isn’t the sign of a weak mind, it’s a sign that Trump is effective at branding.

So, if Trump is remaining between 20% and 25%, and not a flavor of the month, how can we be claiming that Ted Cruz will vacuum up support from anti-establishment “mad as Hell” conservatives?

First, Cruz’s supporters will come from the collapse of Ben Carson. As the supporters of the good Doctor shift from Carson to Cruz, they will indicate that it is nothing personal against Ben, but Ted just has a better shot at winning. The biggest failing of Carson, and it is likely not really something he could fix, is that his foreign policy credentials are poor. Candidates like Cruz and Rubio, who, like Carson, do not have resumes that would indicate a robust understanding foreign policy, nonetheless are far better speakers than Carson and can convey confidence that voters are looking for. Moreover, both Rubio and Cruz clearly have the important skill of being able to listen, interpret, synthesize, and repeat foreign policy positions from advisers. Carson has shown, repeatedly, that he does not have this gift.

In the wake of the Paris Attacks and the the subsequent debate over the Syrian Civil War and issues of Russian aggression, Chinese currency manipulation, etc., a candidate will have to be able to sound both knowledgeable and coherent on geopolitics moving forward. Whereas the top issue for voters is usually the economy, you can anticipate that the GOP electorate, that is traditionally more keyed to security, will have modified its credentials list for the future nominee to include foreign policy acumen. Carson has shown that he does not embody this trait. You should expect his support to diminish.

Already, we were thinking that Carson, despite a potential win in Iowa, would have very little play in other states. This is due, in large part, to the fact that, despite his impressive fundraising numbers, Carson is burning a lot of his cash on pumping out name recognition and solicitations. An also-ran in New Hampshire’s polling, Carson would have to compete in South Carolina and into Super Tuesday. For the reasons we’ll jump into here in a moment, this does not appear to be a reasonable plan. If we are placing bets, Carson may finish in the top three in Iowa and then drop out after Super Tuesday (remember, all predictions look foolish in retrospect unless they’re right, so don’t judge too harshly).

It’s important to note that we have not seen any general Republican field polling that was conducted after the Paris Attacks. It’s a smart bet to think that the hawkish candidates will get a bump. With 75 days out of Iowa and the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years’ chasm in the way, I would not anticipate any polling to start to be totally settled until January.

Let’s do a little bit of a thought experiment here and look at where the race will be headed in the early months of next year. First: who is left in the race at the time of the Iowa Caucus? Most likely everyone (with the potential exception of John Kasich). Why don’t I anticipate other dropouts? Because if your campaign is either spending a lot of money or no money, there’s no real incentive to drop out.

Iowa will be the winnowing fan for the conservative side of the Party. Expect that Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal to drop out after the Caucus results come in. Barring a really bad finish, I can’t imagine Carson getting out at that point even if Iowa goes Cruz-Trump.

New Hampshire’s primary a week later will serve the same function for the “establishment” candidates. Expect Pataki, Christie, and Fiorina to drop out after that contest. (If Kasich isn’t gone by this point, he will be now. I can’t see him waiting for Ohio.)

The remaining candidates going into the South will probably be: Carson, Cruz, Rubio, Trump, Bush, Graham (maybe in through SC, who knows), and Paul.

South Carolina will be on February 20 and Nevada will be on February 23. I’d expect Paul to bow out after Nevada. I’d expect Carson and Graham out after South Carolina.

So, the March 1 Super Tuesday ballot looks something like: Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Bush. I can imagine a scenario where Bush is out after New Hampshire (that would only accelerate this model, anyhow), but let’s assume he’s able to squeeze some more money in the last months of 2015 and in January.

So, what states are being decided on Super Tuesday? Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virgina. (If Rand Paul stays in the race, he has a play at Alaska as he is the only candidate who has visited there, other than that, maybe Vermont?). Cruz’s must-win is Texas. Texas’ sizable delegate count will be distributed roughly 1/2 proportionally by district and 1/2 proportionally statewide. Cruz also has a strategy with regards to Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. I’d anticipate Mike Huckabee will endorse Cruz after Iowa. Huckabee remains popular as the former Governor of Arkansas and that could carry Cruz to the win.

Colorado, Oklahoma, and Tennessee could go for Trump. Vermont and Massachusetts may be Bush’s only real play. Virginia makes sense for Rubio. (Again, there is really no polling on these states at this point, this projection would just be based on historical trends and where candidates have been focusing their attentions).

Cruz’s plan on Super Tuesday (assuming a win in Iowa) looks to have the plurality of delegates from four-or-five (depending on South Carolina) states. Remember that the GOP convention requires a candidate to have the plurality of the delegation from eight states to appear for nomination.

Four days later, Cruz should be able to pick up Louisiana (either helped or hindered by the endorsement of Bobby Jindal in this scenario).  Plays in Puerto Rico and one or more of the other outlying territories will put him at the eight delegations needed to appear on the ballot.

This is where the race gets particularly interesting. Cruz will, in this model, have a slim delegate lead over Donald Trump coming into the “second half” of the cycle where states have the ability to award delegates in a winner-take-all model. There’s a good chance that Rubio runs the table on March 15 and takes Florida and Ohio (North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri are also up for grabs, but are not all winner-take-all). If Bush has not left the race by this point, losing Florida would be the end of his campaign.

Thus, with about 20 states left to go, the delegate counts would be almost evenly split (because most of the delegates to that point will have been awarded proportionally and divided in bulk among Cruz, Trump and Rubio with remainders).

There will be a two-week break between the March 22 primaries in Arizona and Utah and the first April primary in Wisconsin. There’s another two-week break between Wisconsin and New York. This period of “low activity” would be the most important of the Trump campaign. Ostensibly, in this modeling, there would be enough delegates outstanding to allow one candidate to receive the majority of the total delegates if Trump dropped out of the race. If he stays in, he will effectively force a brokered convention.

A brokered convention, triggered if no candidate gets the majority of the delegates, is a situation that would heavily favor Marco Rubio. In this scenario, Party insiders who have no love for Trump or Cruz would cobble together support for a “unity” ticket with Rubio at the top and a consensus-conservative governor as the Vice President (sorry John Kasich, it’s probably not you in this case). I’d expect Nikki Haley or Scott Walker to be on the short list.

Now, much of this situation will come down to exactly for how many votes each state delegation agrees to be bound. To put it simply, state parties set the rules for how long their delegations have to vote for the candidate that the voters told them to vote for. Most states put this at either two or three ballots (hence the reason it’s important to win eight states to appear on the ballot. Also-rans who picked up some delegates will usually release their delegates with the recommendation to support a particular candidate.). So, the RNC will need to have ballot management in order to “rig” the convention for Rubio. Basically it will go like this: one first ballot that shows no one has a majority. Following that, some delegations may be unbound. Convince those delegates to get on board while other delegations remain bound for a second or third ballot. If a second vote also fails to get a nomination, postpone the third vote, put out a Vice Presidential candidate for Rubio and then get the nomination. If this strategy fails, the Party will turn to the “officials” of each delegation (each state gets three RNC officials who act as delegates as well). The RNC will ask these delegates to put whatever pressure is necessary on their delegations to get behind Rubio-Walker (or whatever the ticket is).

Because of the insider support that Rubio is likely to have at the convention, he is in a far better position to emerge as the Republican nominee. Therefore, despite a competitive race with Ted Cruz, it looks like the “house” is going to win.

There are two important caveats: first, this scenario implies a Trump campaign that stagnates at 20-25%. Second, this is merely a projection. There’s a good chance that this will all seem ridiculous come the Iowa caucus.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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