Posted by on February 27, 2016

I was all torqued up to write a post with the above title, when I read an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Karl Rove entitled “The Donald Doesn’t Have a Lock – Yet.” It made all of the points I intended to make.  Only better.  But then, Rove has been practicing the dark arts of political mathematics much longer than I have.

The key points that Rove stole from me are the following:

  • Although Trump has won three of the four Republican contests so far, from the stand point of delegates, they count for little: only about 5% of the total.  To put this in perspective, Texas alone will award 17% more delegates than the combined total of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
  • Although Trump’s victory in Nevada was surprisingly strong[1], this was a caucus and not a vote.  Participation in a caucus is even spottier than in a primary vote; slightly less than 18% of the registered Nevada Republicans participated.  This makes a caucus pretty easy to hijack by a vociferous minority.  (Moreover, although Rove didn’t make this point, there are good reasons to believe that the Nevada caucus is even quirkier.  Apparently, the Nevada caucus is so technologically backward and chaotic that the Republican National Committee has threatened in the past to bump it down the primary schedule.  Certainly, there was a lot of controversy this year.  See here for some reporting.)
  • Although momentum does matter in politics, there are good reasons to believe that Trump will benefit less from this effect than usual.  Trump has gone out of his way to insult other candidates and, by implication, their supporters. It is hard to see them swinging around to support their tormentor.
  • March 1 (“Super Tuesday”) will be a big day, awarding a total of 963 delegates or 39% of the total.  But even this day is unlikely to be decisive. Almost all of these delegates are awarded on a proportionate basis, which means that a three-way race between Trump, Cruz and Rubio is not as favorable to Trump as it could be.  Rove does some quick guesstimates, for example, which shows Trump coming out of Super Tuesday with 489 delegates, versus Rubio with 330 and Cruz with 197 (and with 24 scattered among the other candidates).  This would not be the “running the table” that Trump predicted could follow his victory in South Carolina.
  • The key is what happens between March 1st and March 15th (the “Ides of March”), when the next big round of Republican primaries will take place.  Unlike Super Tuesday, the Ides of March contains two big votes (Florida and Ohio) that are “winner takes all.”  In order to stop Trump, it is probably necessary that these contests be one-on-one, such as Trump versus Rubio (with Kasich hanging on for Ohio, but with minimal impact).
  • Trump is gunning for a victory over Cruz in Texas, but he shouldn’t be.  Trump should want to keep Cruz on life-support for as long as possible.  A Cruz defeat in Texas or even (as Rove speculates) a minor Cruz victory in Texas with no other victories, could spell the end his campaign.   After March 1, the primaries swing north and away from Cruz’s evangelical base.  If Cruz does not win big on Super Tuesday, then even he may see the writing on the wall and drop out, allowing the possibility of consolidation behind Rubio.

Put all of this together and there are two crucial primaries.  The first is Texas, which may spell the end of Cruz’s candidacy and the possible consolidation of the non-Trump vote.   The second is Florida, where Rubio must win on March 15th for him to have any hope of defeating Trump.

But in Florida the news is not good for those of us who hope to avoid a Trump nomination.  The WSJ reports that a Quinnipiac University poll of Republican voters in Florida gives Trump a 44% to 28% lead over Rubio. The WSJ also reports that the Real Clear Politics poll average for Florida gives Trump a 21% edge over Rubio in Florida.  But…and there is always a “but”…both of these polls still are multi-candidate rankings, and Rubio is within striking distance in a one-on-one contest.

So there is still a path to a degree of sanity for the Republican Party.  It runs through a poor showing for Cruz on Super Tuesday, followed by a one-on-one victory for Rubio in Florida on the Ides of March.  There might be other ways, but this appears to be the most likely way of stopping Trump.

Although I have not yet given up hope, I think it is time for some contingency planning on my part.  If anyone in my readership knows a good recipe for crow, please send it to me.  I may be eating some soon.

Debating Donald

I haven’t had a chance to watch the entire Republican debate from Houston, but I have seen some highlights.  It is very sad to see how ineffective both Cruz and Rubio can be in battling Trump.

For example, there was one episode where Cruz was making the point that Trump could not beat Clinton in the general election.  Trump burst in with “well, I am beating you everywhere, so imagine how badly you would do against her” (or words to that effect).  The obvious response was:  “Donald, you do know that beating me in a three-way race among Republican voters is not the same as beating Hillary Clinton in a two-person race among the general public, right?  I mean, you do understand the mathematics of that, don’t you?”

Trump routinely hands them opportunities to point out what an uninformed, lazy and shallow thinker he is.  But they never seem to capitalize on these.  I don’t know if Trump’s luck would hold up in the general election.

On the Democratic Side and Bloomberg

On the Democratic side, the Sanders children’s crusade should come to an abrupt end after the Clinton electoral machine sucks up minority votes on Super Tuesday.  The polls show Clinton way ahead in all but Sanders’ home state of Vermont.  If this doesn’t happen, then this will be even more shocking than Trump’s positioning.

By the middle of March, there is a very good chance that we will staring down the barrel of a Trump versus Clinton battle for the presidency.  I have previously speculated that Bloomberg might jump into a contest like this, but I now doubt that he would be willing to enter if this is the configuration.  A three-way contest with Trump, Clinton and Bloomberg would probably give the presidency to Trump.  And I doubt that Bloomberg would like that to be his ultimate political legacy.

Cry the beloved country.

Path Dependency

The debate in the UK over the EU referendum is heating up rapidly.  Although it is very early days, one thing is becoming very clear.  That is the role played by “path dependency” in the discussion.

“Path dependency” is a concept used in economics which argues that it just doesn’t matter where you are but also how you got there.  In the case of the current debate, one of the strongest arguments used by the “in” campaign is the disruption and distraction that would affect the UK political and economic scene if the “out” vote wins.   The cost of getting “out” may be so large as to outweigh the benefits of getting there.  Although it might have been better for the UK to have never joined, this is not the choice that voters currently face.  In other words, the path matters.

You saw these same arguments during the Euro crisis.  Clearly, it would have been better if the Greeks had never been let in, but their departure and its potential “contagion” would have been enormously disruptive.  The path mattered there also.

This leads me to conclude that there is an independent argument against these grand political projects like the EU and the Eurozone.  That argument is that, if it subsequently becomes necessary to dismantle them, this is almost certainly going to be costly.  This is yet another reason why we should be very cautious before embarking.

Bill James on Trump

Finally, I leave you with an article written by Bill James, which can be found here, that was sent to me by one of my readers.  Readers of Moneyball by Michael Lewis (which was made into a film starring Brad Pitt) will recognize James as the statistics whizz who revolutionized the analysis of baseball.  Bill James is a very smart guy, although I still totally disagree with him on the relative merits of Ted Williams and Stan Musial.

James is no fan of Trump.  Here is his analysis of Trump’s chances of winning the presidency:

I don’t think that Trump can win, frankly, because I don’t think there are enough morons to elect him. A certain percentage of the American public is just morons; that’s the way it is. When you divide the public in two and then divide the voters in one of those halves among five candidates or more, a candidate can win by dominating the moron vote because it only takes about one-seventh of the total population to take the “lead” under those circumstances. But when you’re talking about needing 51% of the WHOLE population, rather than needing 30% of half of the population, you run out of morons.

But James does think that Trump is on to something and, unlike Williams versus Musial, this is something on which we totally agree.  Namely, that Trump is a product of the surreal world of political correctness.  Here is James on the subject:

But also, if I came home from school and complained to my father that the other kids were teasing me about, let’s say, wearing glasses held together by masking tape, it would be the understatement of the week to say that I was not going to receive a sympathetic hearing. I would have been told in an extremely direct manner to grow up and stop whining. What exactly do you think you’re accomplishing when you try to ban that sort of thing, not by teaching proper behavior but by banning improper behavior? Do you really think that that brings an end to teasing, among schoolkids? What it really does is, it creates a nation of whiners….It is my perception—as it is the perception, I think, of almost all of the Trump supporters—that we are becoming a nation of whiners. When you try to make rules about how others treat you, you are always a victim….

That’s what his whole campaign is about, I think: you have to stand up for yourself. Our politicians have to stand up for us. I don’t believe that anyone has ever run a Presidential campaign before based on this principle, and I think that what Donald Trump has done is to demonstrate exactly how powerful this is as an organizing principle for a political campaign…. We have lost touch with the virtue of toughness. We despise toughness, not as individuals but as a collective, and we sympathize with whiners when we should ignore them. The consequences of this are becoming visible, and they will become more visible until we realize that toughness is a real thing, a real virtue, and that we need more of it….

That, I think, is what Donald Trump is saying, mixed in with a lot of lies and half-truths and stupid self-promotion, but that’s the kernel of it. I’ll vote for anybody that you put up against him, but neither do I believe that everything he says is untrue or is without merit. He’s on to something. Hopefully somebody who isn’t The Donald will be smart enough to pick up on it.

 

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom

[1] The scale of Trump’s victory was impressive (46%), since I have always assumed that his popularity is “capped” at a lower percentage.  But even more surprising was the breadth of his support, with exit polls showed him winning with nearly all major demographic groups.  He even claimed victory in the Hispanic vote, but since this probably represented getting two out of three Hispanic voters, I wouldn’t put too much store in this.

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