The second stage of the 2016 presidential contest has begun, and
the first stage (which lasted for more than a year) has set up
various possible scenarios that begin with the Iowa Caucus on
February 1, and could conclude as late as the national conventions
Examining the Republican contest first, there is no arguable way
not to credit the dominant performance of businessman Donald
Trump throughout the first stage. A master of the media which
has primarily controlled the public perception of stage 1, Mr.
Trump has led in the national polls through most of the past year,
usually outdistancing his closest rival by double digits. Physician
Ben Carson, another non-politician, also maintained high poll
numbers, but his campaign and popularity now seem to be in a
nose dive. In recent weeks, in the period just before the Iowa and
New Hampshire voting battles began in earnest, Marco Rubio,
Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have seemed to make the most gains.
Mr. Cruz actually leads Mr. Trump in Iowa polls.
In the past, however, Iowa and New Hampshire voters, polls
notwithstanding, have made up their minds late in the contest.
A rule of thumb contends that as many as 80% of Iowa caucus
attendees decide their vote only in the last week or ten days
before caucus night.
So what are the possible scenarios that could result, now
speculating less than three weeks from the Iowa vote?
Conventional wisdom has Ted Cruz winning the Iowa Caucus,
with Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush
trailing, but each winning some delegates. In this scenario, Chris
Christie, John Kasich. Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul
and Rick Santorum (who won the 2012 Iowa Caucus) all do
poorly, and probably win very few or no delegates. That’s the
safest bet today.
But actual voting in primaries and caucuses, especially the
early ones, often come up with surprises. One surprise would
be for Mr. Trump to make a comeback and win Iowa. That
would signal his candidacy is more serious than many observers
have thought it would be in the second stage. This would also
be a big blow to Mr. Cruz who is not expected to win in New
Hampshire, and might find it very hard to gain momentum in
March and beyond. Another surprise would be for Mr. Christie
to come in third or fourth, and win some delegates. This could
give his campaign a big boost just before New Hampshire where
he is already doing very well. A strong Jeb Bush showing in Iowa
would be another surprise, and could reinvigorate his image at
a critical time, putting him back in the top tier of candidates.
Any strong showing in Iowa would be a surprise for Mrs. Fiorina.
Unless they do much better than expected, Iowa could see the
end of the Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum
The most predictive state of the first four has been New
Hampshire which is the first state to vote in a primary. Mr.
Trump leads there now, and especially if he does not win Iowa,
he would have to win New Hampshire or face the reality that his
dominance of stage 1 was merely media manipulation. Mr.
Christie has made the most dramatic gains recently in this state,
and is bunched up into a tie for second with Mr. Bush, Mr.
Rubio and Mr. Cruz. If he or Mr. Rubio actually won here, it
could jumpstart their campaigns to major victories in contest
later on. Mr. Cruz also needs to do well here, particularly if he
does not win, or wins very narrowly, in Iowa.
After the first two states, it is quite possible that the field will
condense. It will take money and good organization to compete in
South Carolina, and then the eleven Super Tuesday states. The
field should be only four to seven candidates by the time of the
Florida primary, with only three or four being in a strong position.
Super Tuesday is likely to have mixed results. A surprise would
be, after doing better than expected in the first four contests,, that
Mr. Trump wins most of these primaries. This could put him on
an unstoppable course to the nomination. More likely is that Mr.
Rubio will do the best on Super Tuesday, firming him up for his
native Florida that follows, and some serious momentum in the
later voting states. Another surprise would be if Mr. Christie,
having done better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire
begins to catch on nationally, and like Mr. Rubio, ensures him a
place in the final competition leading up to the convention.
Another surprise in the 2016 GOP campaign would be if the
surviving candidates each began to win later primaries and
caucuses, thus preventing anyone from getting the momentum to
clinch the nomination before the convention. This particularly
could revive Mr. Kasich’s chances (he could easily win Ohio).
This pattern of multiple candidate victories in late primaries is
not unusual at all, but in recent years it has taken place after one
candidate has secured the nomination.
The final “predictable” surprise would be a “brokered” convention.
Neither party has had one of these for about seventy-five years, but
like the phenomenon of the winning presidential nominee not
winning the popular vote in 2000, it could happen.
There is also the possibility that there will be an unanticipated
surprise in 2016, one that won’t be any of the scenarios I’ve
discussed above. There are already clear signals from many voters
that they do not want to do their political business as usual in 2016.
Domestic economic or international political events could also
precipitate a dramatic change in the 2016 campaign as well, a
change we cannot now reasonably imagine.
The best news about all this is that we are only days away from the
real beginning, and the first real scenario, for this cycle’s
The actual voting will begin a chain reaction that will take us right
up to noon on January 20, 2017 when someone new, name now
not known, will raise his or her hand to take the presidential oath.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.