In the past, we’d know the nominee by now
Do any of these guys really still have a chance?
History says no. Going back to 1952, just three candidates finishing second in New Hampshire went on to win the party’s nomination. Only one, George W. Bush, won the general election. Further, as the National Review states, six of the past seven nominees garnered at least 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. Kasich’s 16 percent is even less impressive when seen in that light.
But the 2016 Republican race has confounded conventional wisdom. Commentators have chalked it up to the oddity and volatility of Trump’s candidacy, as well as the failure to pick a single “establishment” candidate.
So what changed? First, Citizens United.
Although these are certainly factors, two larger, structural forces are at work that belie historical patterns — ones that should hearten the middle-of-the-pack contenders.
The first is money. Citizens United changed fundraising rules in a way that impinges on the GOP’s desire for a business-as-usual race. It used to be that candidates required early wins to gain enough momentum and donations to compete into March. In the post-Citizens United era, that’s no longer true. Bush’s war chest is so sizable that even if he continues on his present trajectory, he will still have enough in the coffers to stay in the race as long as he wants.
The fact is that a billionaire could write a check to any of the candidates tomorrow, allowing them to amass delegates at the margin and press forward regardless of popular support. And there’s precedence for that. Big donors such as Sheldon Adelson allowed candidates such as former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to stay in the 2012 race long past their expiration dates.
The lesson of Citizens United? Billionaires can’t buy elections, but they can buy chaos.
Second, the GOP changed how it doles out delegates
The second major factor is the evolution of the Republican Party’s primary calendar and delegate allocation rules.
In 1996, Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) won the nomination. But right-wing darling Pat Buchanan, faring well in the more conservative early primary states, kept things too close for comfort. In response, party insiders sought to create a more spread-out calendar. They hoped this would lessen the importance of initial momentum and prevent non-establishment candidates from winning.
There was one big problem with this, however. State committees believed early contests had the most clout, so they constantly tried to leapfrog one another on the schedule. In response, the GOP has developed a two-tiered sanction system to impose discipline on the primary process — a system that has, ironically, created more chaos than control.
First, the Republican National Committee requires that any state voting before March 15 include some element of proportionality in their delegate distribution. This is a serious penalty: Winner-take-all states matter more because there are more delegates at stake. The RNC calculated that states would schedule later primaries to preserve that power.
The plan backfired. State committees opted for earlier primary dates rather than winner-take-all distribution. As a result, the new rule introduced more proportionality into the process. Just 10 states remain winner-take-all. Notably, this group excludes California, New York and Texas – the states with the highest delegate counts.
The GOP also is imposing a second major sanction for the 2016 race: the “super-penalty.” Other than traditional early birds Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, any state holding a primary or caucus before March 1 will be allotted just 12 delegates. To put that in context, California had 172 delegates in 2012. Had they moved into February, the new rule would have reduced their delegate count by 93 percent.
It’s a draconian penalty. And it worked. No one pushed into February. They instead huddled in the first few weeks of March. So more than half the states will have held their contests before March 15. But because these are now proportional states, no candidate will emerge from those contests with the delegates necessary to win the nomination. As such, much of the field will linger, keeping delegate counts low and allowing an already-unpredictable race to develop in novel ways.
So no one’s giving up — because almost anyone can still win
Precedent argues that a large portion of the field should give up now. But our ever-evolving primary process has added some new variables that push back on this conventional wisdom. It could be that in this new system, in this especially unique race, the horse with the longest odds today may yet win in the end.
Nicole Hemmer is a U.S. News contributing editor and a research associate at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is also host of the Past Present podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @pastpunditry.
Tony Lucadamo is the lead policy analyst at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. His work has been published in the Hill and Washington Post, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @tonylucadamo.