Matt McDaniel

19 minute read

We are three weeks, two debates, and one State of the Union address away from the Iowa Caucuses (add one more week and one more debate for the New Hampshire primary). If you have a lot of things to do today and don’t have much interest in looking a bunch of numbers, here’s the point of this post: the eventual establishment Republican (for the purposes of the title, Marco Rubio) is going to have a very difficult time getting enough delegates to make a fight for the nomination.

Here are all of the required caveats for posting a mid-January prediction for the 2016 Republican race:

  • I am using poll numbers that may date back into December
  • There are still three weeks and two debates before any votes
  • Polls are all over the place and vary as much as 10% between one another in early states
  • Trump’s supporters are disproportionately skewed by people who won’t actually turn out to vote
  • One (or two!) establishment Republicans might drop out before the primary in New Hampshire
  • Current events could totally change the tide of the election
  • Rick Santorum [or, insert whatever candidate you want that proves the point] was at 4% in early January and went on to win Iowa (despite the fact that Ron Paul actually got the delegate majority)
  • My preferred candidate is actually some kind of poll-defying wizard and will win despite the odds.

Ok, that all out of the way, let’s talk about the reality on the ground for the Republican nomination contests.

Here are the big numbers you should remember: 2472 and 1237. There are 2472 available delegates to the Republican National Convention in July. In order to secure the nomination, a candidate must have a simple majority (50%+1) of the delegates during a floor vote at the convention (1237 delegates).

As we noted, above, Iowa votes on February 1, 2016 with 30 delegates available. New Hampshire votes on February 9, 2016 with 23 total delegates available. South Carolina votes on February 20, 2016 with 50 delegates available. Nevada votes on February 23, 2016 with 30 delegates available.

Super Tuesday is on March 1, 2016. On Super Tuesday, the following states vote:

State Delegates
Alabama 50
Alaska 28
Arkansas 40
Colorado 37
Georgia 76
Massachusetts 42
Minnesota 38
North Dakota 28
Oklahoma 43
Tennessee 58
Texas 155
Vermont 16
Virginia 49
Wyoming 29

By adding up all of the available delegates between the “first four” (IA, NH, SC, and NV) with those available on Super Tuesday, we get our second important number: 751. Now, 751 is the absolute total of all delegates up for grabs on or before March 1, 2016. The real total is actually closer to 709 because some states (NH, AL, AK, AR, CO, MA, MN, ND, OK, TN, TX, VA, and WY) allow their 3 “RNC Delegates” to remain unbound for the convention. Basically, every state gets 3 RNC Delegates (2 RNC committee persons and 1 state Party chair). Some states bind these 3 delegates to vote for the candidate supported in the state, others (the ones noted above), let the RNC delegates make up their own mind. Bound delegates (the ones actually selected to go to the convention to cast the state’s votes) are required to vote (for one or more ballots depending on the State and the support levels for the candidate to whom the delegate is bound) for a particular candidate.

So, we now need to break down each of the states and look at how each could play out in the larger primary context:


Iowa is the state that everyone is fixated on in the national media. It’s the first state to give real people a chance to make their voices heard. It will also likely be a swing state in the General Election this year. Iowa has a caucus model and does not actually award delegates until later on in the spring when the “higher level” caucuses have taken place. However, given that precinct caucus results will be binding at district and statewide events, the February 1 preference results are very likely to be the actual delegate allocation.

27 Delegates from Iowa (out of 30) are awarded proportionally (3 each from IA’s 4 Congressional Districts [CDs] and 15 statewide). The 3 RNC delegates are unbound.

The likely breakdown after Iowa, given the RealClearPolitics and Pollster percentages will look something like this:

Trump Cruz Rubio Bush Kasich Christie Carson Paul Other
IA 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 1 1
ROLLING 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 1 1
TOTAL 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 1 1

Prediction: Following Iowa, we will see several campaigns suspend. Barring a strange finish, we should expect the exit of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson (we’re saying that Rand stays in until Nevada, but he’s also on the dropout watchlist for Iowa– he’s said that he has the best ground game, so this will be the testing moment for the Kentucky Senator).


The GOP candidates will meet for another debate in the week between the Iowa Caucuses and the new Hampshire primary. The news will likely be focused on Cruz’s apparent win in Iowa and whether an establishment candidate will be able to replicate that victory in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has a 10% threshold for candidates to qualify for any delegates. This is the number that is keeping the Bush, Kasich, and Christie campaigns awake at night. While Rubio looks to be at the head of the establishment pack at the moment (and outside of the margin of error for a sub-10% finish), he is still competing for the same general group of voters as at least four other candidates in New Hampshire.

For the purposes of our New Hampshire analysis, we are working under the assumption that Cruz won Iowa and Carson’s support has generally transferred to Cruz. If Trump wins Iowa, there’s a very good chance that he could roll the rest of the primaries (and make all of this analyzing a lot less interesting).

New Hampshire has 20 delegates up for grabs (their 3 RNC delegates are unpledged). Based on current polling, there are three scenarios here:

Scenario A: All of the Establishment Candidates overcome the 10% threshold:

Trump Cruz Rubio Bush Kasich Christie Carson Paul Other
NH 7 3 4 2 2 2 X
ROLLING 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 2
TOTAL 13 11 9 3 3 3 3 2

Scenario B: Two Establishment Candidates get over 10%

Trump Cruz Rubio Bush Kasich Christie Carson Paul Other
NH 8 4 5 3 X
ROLLING 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 2
TOTAL 16 12 8 1 1 4 3 2

Now, NH allocates delegates actually based on a formula of 20 x (Candidate’s vote)/(Total Statewide vote). The above numbers maintain the relative proportional increase where we assume that Bush and Kasich failed to reach 10% but still garnered ~8% of the vote. Delegates would still need to get to 20 but would seem to artificially inflate others.

Scenario C: Only Rubio

Trump Cruz Rubio Bush Kasich Christie Carson Paul Other
NH 10 3 7 X
ROLLING 7 8 4 1 1 1 3 2
TOTAL 17 11 11 1 1 1 3 2

In this scenario, you’ll note that Trump’s overall number of delegates went up. This is based on the fact that delegates were only allotted across three individuals rather than more. You’ll also notice that Rubio is “tied” with Cruz in the delegate running total. Some folks will disagree with this number and say that in a scenario where all of Rubio’s establishment rivals are finishing under the threshold that Rubio could beat Trump. The math might work out as we get closer to the election. However, if we are assuming that Rubio (currently using a base of 15-20%) get 2-5% from each of his rivals, he is still polling below or even with Trump (currently using a base of 30-35%). You can see, however, that there is a potential Rubio win if he is able to draw 5% from Kasich, Christie, and Bush and Trump is only able to bring in 30%. In that scenario, Rubio and Trump’s delegate numbers would look something like Rubio 8, Trump 8, Cruz 4 (remember that these counts are necessarily inflated because of the threshold. We are assuming that Cruz is bringing in about 15%– his current 10% plus Carson’s 4% and maybe some love from his Iowa win).

Going forward, we think that Scenario B is the most likely. While it may not be Chris Christie, we are assuming that the New Jersey Governor’s position in the Granite State is the strongest to make himself the contender to also get above 10%.

ESTABLISHMENT NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: While Christie, Bush, and Kasich having sub-10% finishes would be bad for their campaigns, that result would effectively end the “establishment lane” race with Rubio as the clear victor. Scenario A, above, could create a nightmare for the GOP. If all of the establishment lane candidates get around the same amount of delegates from New Hampshire (this also, necessarily, means that Rubio isn’t able to pull away from the pack), why would any of those candidates decide to fold up the campaign and endorse Rubio, whose performance was only mildly better than their own? In fact, Jeb(!) would think he could make a play for winner-take-all Florida to reboot his campaign on March 15 and Kasich could be thinking the same thing for Ohio on the same day. They’d expect to ride out the storm of Super Tuesday and focus on the “long game.” This would, effectively, cripple any of the establishment lane candidates from getting any traction. (Basically, the scenario is this: Rubio, Kasich, Bush, and Christie all stay in the race after fairly similar NH finishes. If all-but-one dropped, the supporters of the others– something like 15-20% nationally– would adhere to the non-dropped candidate. This support would give the non-dropped candidate something like 25-30% of the vote and put him nearly on par with Trump and Cruz. While we’d anticipate heavy attrition from Christie and Kasich if they stayed in the race, even their presence in South Carolina could be ruinous for establishment numbers heading forward).

Prediction: Christie and Rubio get over the threshold. Jeb and Kasich drop out. This is one of those predictions that is completely going to depend on the decisions of a few hundred voters on primary day in New Hampshire. Christie may still drop out even if he hits the threshold. Jeb would probably stay in with a fourth place finish above the threshold. The current numbers would indicate: Trump (30%), Rubio (20%+), Cruz (15-20%), Christie (11%) // Bush, Kasich, et al. <10%.


South Carolina’s primary is going to be intense. Under almost any scenario you use to get here, the First in the South Primary is going to be a critical vote. Now, let’s remember a few things. First, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina in 2012, but John McCain won it in 2008. Second, the delegate allocation to South Carolina is more-than-double what it was in 2012.

Here’s how delegates are going to be awarded in South Carolina: 21 from SC’s 7 CDs, 26 Statewide, 3 RNC bound to the Statewide vote.

And this is the kicker: all of those delegates are awarded winner-take-all. “But, but, but I thought they couldn’t do winner-take-all until Florida on March 15!” Well, the first 21 (the CDs) are awarded winner-take-all per CD. So, let’s assume a scenario where Trump wins the plurality of the statewide vote, he’d get 26 delegates plus 3 from each of the CDs he carried with a plurality (to make the math easy, probably at least 4/7 and therefore 12 delegates). He would also bind the 3 RNC delegates. His statewide total would, thus, be 41. The other 9 would go to whoever won the 3 CDs we assume Trump did not win with a plurality (we’ll assume that will be SC06– the gerrymandered D CD– and then SC04– Trey Gowdy’s seat– and probably one other).

Now, could the math work out differently? Well, here’s the baseline: 29 delegates (at a minimum) are going to the statewide winner. Could that individual win a plurality of all the votes in the state without actually winning a CD? Sure, if he comes in second in each and the first place spots are split between two or more other candidates. However, the likelihood is that the winner of SC will come away with a delegate haul between 38 and 41.

By the current numbers, Trump is in the lead in SC but there has not been any concentrated polling yet in the State that I’m willing to make a firm prediction based on. However, we can extrapolate a few things based on the scenario we’ve been using where Cruz wins Iowa, Trump wins NH with Rubio in second and Jeb and Kasich dropping out. We’ll assume for our numbers that Trump is going to get between 30 and 35% in SC. Cruz will have absorbed Carson’s supporters and will be somewhere in the 32-37% range. Rubio will be somewhere between 25-35% (we are assuming that Gowdy and the rest of the GOP come to Rubio’s defense in SC). Christie may be drawing 5-10% (yes, we are going over 100% of the vote here given the higher ranges).

Scenario A: Trump Threads the Needle

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
SC 32 9 9
ROLLING 16 12 8 4 7
TOTAL 48 21 17 4 7

This would be the best case scenario for Trump. Effectively, he would win only one CD but wind up with the plurality of statewide support. This scenario envisions Rubio and Cruz effectively splitting the CDs which may be possible given the in-state endorsements.

Scenario B: Rubio’s Endorsements Pay Off

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
SC 3 6 41
ROLLING 16 12 8 4 7
TOTAL 19 18 47 4 7

If Rubio’s endorsements by Trey Gowdy and other elected officials in South Carolina carry strong weight with voters as they go to the polls, SC could be an opportunity for Rubio to emerge as the frontrunner. This is his campaign’s best day. Given that between himself, Trump, and Cruz that Rubio is the most hawkish, this scenario could very well play out in the strongly-pro-military South Carolina.

Scenario C: Cruz Beats Trump

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
SC 41 9
ROLLING 16 12 8 4 7
TOTAL 16 53 17 4 7

This scenario envisions Cruz pulling together a conservative coalition that bests Trump on every front. This does not mean that Trump has collapsed (he could get 30%+ and this could still take place), but it fuels the narrative that this is now a race between Rubio and Cruz. This is, by far, the scenario Cruz is craving headed into Super Tuesday and the delegate-rich southern states. A major win in South Carolina could mean that Cruz would emerge from Super Tuesday with nearly 500 delegates.

Prediction: This one is just too-close-to-call at this point. Each of the scenarios has elements of truth in their potentials, but, given the delegate allocations in South Carolina, we can’t really imagine a hybrid of any of the models. Like we talked about, above, someone is going to get 29 delegates, period. That person will likely win at least a couple of CDs. Therefore, even if the race is 33-33-33, the person with that one extra supporter will break the race in favor of his candidate. The conventional wisdom says: go with Scenario B. The logic goes something like this: Gingrich was an establishment hawk and so was McCain. South Carolina is conservative, but they also vote for the guy who isn’t afraid to project American power abroad. Especially with endorsements and low expectations, Rubio could come out ahead with a major victory.

CAVEAT: All of these scenarios assume that Jeb Bush and John Kasich have suspended their campaigns before voters go to the polls in South Carolina (we are also assuming that Christie does not make a significant impact on the race). If, however, other establishment candidates remain in the race after New Hampshire, there is a strong likelihood that Rubio’s numbers would be disproportionately changed. If Bush, Kasich, or Christie draw 10% or more, collectively, from Rubio in South Carolina, it will be nearly impossible for the Florida Senator to win any delegates. Like in New Hampshire, Donald Trump benefits the most from having more establishment candidates in the field and can run as the more pro-military candidate when up against Ted Cruz. If Rubio is neutralized by other establishment contenders in the race, Trump could very easily win South Carolina in a rout.


The Nevada Caucuses come just three days after South Carolina and will allocate the State’s 30 delegates proportionally. There is a 3.33% threshold in Nevada (1/30).

Nevada polling has been sparse, at best. If Rubio or Cruz get a big win in South Carolina based on CD victories and a close statewide vote, Nevada will likely be the attempted comeback for Trump. Likewise, if any minor players remain in the race, they could draw a few delegates off of the plurality winner.


Doing out all of the delegate projections now for Super Tuesday would be difficult (and time consuming) and, ultimately, not terribly fruitful given the current fluctuations possible in the race. However, here are the two “Coming to Super Tuesday” scenarios we envision:

Scenario A: The Polls Have Been Right All Along

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
TOTAL 70 27 16 5 9

Based on current polling where Cruz wins Iowa and Trump wins New Hampshire and South Carolina (and the plurality in Nevada), this would be, generally, the state of the race on March 1, 2016. This would also be the state of the race as more and more establishment candidates decide to stay in the contest.

Scenario B: Establishment Decides to Go for Rubio

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
TOTAL 29 23 59 6 10

This is the extension of a big win for Rubio in South Carolina and a close second-place finish in New Hampshire. This would also bring Rubio’s numbers up in Nevada.

That brings us to this chart:

State Cutoff Delegates
Alabama 20% 50
Tennessee 20% 58
Texas 20% 155
Vermont 20% 16
Georgia 20% 76
Arkansas 15% 40
Oklahoma 15% 43
Alaska 13% 28
Minnesota 10% 38
Massachusetts 5% 42
Virginia 49
Wyoming 29
North Dakota 28

 Basically, this chart tells us what the thresholds are for qualifying for delegates in each state. As you can tell, depending on which of the two scenarios we’ve presented comes to pass, the Rubio (establishment) campaign has major hurdles to cross. Especially in delegate-rich southern states with high proportional cutoffs, Rubio will have to have significant momentum in order to overcome the presumed narrative that the race is now one between Trump and Cruz.

There are several interesting delegate award provisions to look at in the Trump v. Cruz scenario where both men are polling around 35-40% with Rubio at 20%. Specifically, the 155 delegates in Texas are going to be awarded proportionally except if one candidate receives over 50% of the vote. In that case, the candidate with over 50% wins all of the delegates in that district, or statewide (108 delegates are awarded 3x36CDs and 47 are state-wide). Remember that Texas is Ted Cruz’s home state where he is expecting a significant showing. In the event that Rubio’s campaign is dwindling, expect Cruz to make a major play to win the majority in Texas outright. If Cruz gets 50% of the vote in Texas, he’ll receive at least 47 delegates plus whatever happens in individual districts. However, if he receives less-than 50% statewide, he’ll, at most, get 24 delegates plus whatever he gets in the districts.

As we have pointed out here before, Cruz’s plan is to carry the South and hope to keep Rubio (or the establishment candidate) under thresholds.

Projection: If we use “Scenario A” (the polls have been right all along), we would project something like:

State Cutoff Delegates Trump Cruz Rubio
Alabama 20% 50 28 22
Tennessee 20% 58 35 23
Texas 20% 155 54 70 31
Vermont 20% 16 6 2 8
Georgia 20% 76 40 20 15
Arkansas 15% 40 25 15
Oklahoma 15% 43 24 13 6
Alaska 13% 28 16 8 4
Minnesota 10% 38 16 10 14
Mass 5% 42 20 6 16
Virginia 49 20 9 20
Wyoming 29 13 10 3
North Dakota 28 13 10 5

These figures are then added to the initial primary numbers:

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
TOTAL 380 245 138 5 9

Using “Scenario B” (Rubio gets establishment support), the numbers look different:

State Cutoff Delegates Trump Cruz Rubio
Alabama 20% 50 15 25 10
Tennessee 20% 58 20 26 12
Texas 20% 155 20 70 60
Vermont 20% 16 6 10
Georgia 20% 76 20 36 20
Arkansas 15% 40 10 15 15
Oklahoma 15% 43 10 18 15
Alaska 13% 28 5 10 13
Minnesota 10% 38 8 10 20
Mass 5% 42 10 7 25
Virginia 49 12 12 25
Wyoming 29 5 15 9
North Dakota 28 4 14 10

Adding these to the “Scenario B” numbers:

Trump Cruz Rubio Christie Other
TOTAL 174 281 278 6 10

In this scenario, we still see that Cruz is doing well (Super Tuesday will likely be his strongest day in the primary cycle). However, a surging Rubio is able to get over thresholds and consolidate the establishment vote in order to stake out a strong position to a claim that it is a two man race between himself and Cruz. This would effectively cause the Trump narrative of inevitability to collapse.

Obviously we will need to go into these numbers in greater depth as the actual race becomes clearer (likely after Iowa).

The Point of the Article

Remember the numbers we talked about at the beginning of this post, specifically, 751. If we assume that the polls hold (Scenario A), Trump should get around 35% of the delegates (around 263). However, given the proportionality cutoffs and the manner of delegate awards, Trump could come close to winning over half of the delegates. Effectively while still winning 35% of the popular vote, the effect of this would mean that the billionaire could get a higher percentage of delegates. Also, given that Trump’s narrative is about winning, this would likely put him in a strong position to win the nomination outright.

We also note that on a good day for Rubio he is still likely to be trialing (or in a very close race with) Cruz after Super Tuesday. These numbers should be keeping establishment folks awake at night as we march into the last weeks before the first votes are cast in the 2016 election season.