2016 Republicans, Debates, March 1, State of the Race, Strategy, Uncategorized

Debate Prep: Game Theory

February 25, 2016

Welcome to Debate Night in Texas, AKA Ted’s Last Stand. Once upon a time, Ted Cruz was a serious contender for the GOP nomination. Then Donald Trump started talking about Canadian citizenship. Cruz hasn’t been the same since.

Most voters aren’t spending much time worrying about his eligibility right now. When Trump began attacking, Cruz was dangerously close to him in national polls and ahead in Iowa. Their extended truce/bromance gave Ted cover as he was getting established.

That candidate acquired plenty of evangelical voters from Ben Carson and was ready to branch out and win over secular conservatives. His favorability ratings indicated many Republicans were very open to considering him.

It’s now hard to think of Cruz in isolation, without the specter of Trump hovering over him. A large percentage of Ted sound bytes over the past few weeks were Donald related. In attempting to win evangelicals back or away from him, Cruz has narrowed his focus.

This has given Rubio an option with a batch of conservative and/or evangelical voters who are opposed to Trump, but looking for a more inclusive/electable version of Cruz. Ted was not blind to this risk. He and Rubio have long realized they are in each other’s way.

December was spent with the two candidates jousting, and at least according to the polls, Cruz got the better of it. Rather than discussing Ted’s proclivity to lie or practice political trickery, the narrative focus was on how Rubio handled the Gang of 8 immigration bill.

In a one on one battle, Cruz more than held his own. Unfortunately for him, he’s currently in a three way race where the other two contestants have an effective truce. This brings us to the debate and what the various candidates are potentially thinking.

John Kasich and Ben Carson are going to be there too. At this point, they mostly serve as props and an opportunity for the other three to take a breather. There is a set of circumstances where Kasich becomes a factor later on, but he’s likely to do his usual thing tonight.

Going after any of the other candidates is out of character for him, and he’s labored to build himself a moderate, non-partisan image. Most question the wisdom of thinking he can get nominated this way, and assume it’s a pick me for veep ploy, but no sense in changing course either way.

Carson is going to enjoy his final debate. He will complain about a shortage of direct questions and talk time before fading off into the night. He just isn’t doing well enough to justify much attention.

So back to the three candidates who have a chance of winning primaries on March 1. Rubio would prefer to continue his truce with Trump. Yes, everyone and anyone is talking about how someone needs to take him down. They say if nobody stops him on March 1 it will be too late.

They’re correct about the timing, wrong about the method. If Donald Trump sweeps Super Tuesday, maybe losing to Cruz in Texas, but winning everywhere else, it’s effectively over. He wouldn’t have the race mathematically clinched, but other candidates would need 14 things to magically fall into place to beat him.

If Cruz wins Texas and 3 or 4 other states, he’s still an underdog, but can continue to stick around as a semi-plausible contender and hope Rubio goes away after March 15. If Rubio wins 2 or 3 states, he’s still an underdog, but is a very plausible contender.

No candidate has improved their standing by mixing it up with Trump. As we know, The Donald is a skilled fighter and always has the upper hand. He has endless media access and the freedom to abandon accepted norms of conduct.

He also has a more committed base of support. It’s not like Cruz, Rubio, or anyone else is going to peel away Trump’s core. In a two candidate race, you can benefit from a fight. In a multi-candidate race, The Donald is the only man standing.

The best way Rubio can stop Trump is by helping him gang up on Cruz, while picking up enough anti-Trump conservatives to narrowly win a few Super Tuesday states. With fairly low expectations, if Rubio wins three states, it’s a big day for him.

The question is what’s better for Trump? Does he do what he can to eliminate Cruz, figuring he can win a head-to-head match with Rubio, or does he go easier on Ted and begin to throw a few shots in Marco’s direction?

If Trump can keep the two senators roughly equivalent, it should give The Donald a big edge next week. He’s already ahead in a majority of the states, but his poll numbers are from the high 20s to high 30s, not in the Nevada Zone.

If you figure the main 3 candidates have about 90% to divide, and Trump is likely to wind up spending a bunch of time in the low-mid 30s, the only way he loses those states is to have Cruz fade further and Rubio benefit, or have Marco implode and Ted pick up the pieces.

This doesn’t count Massachusetts and possibly Vermont, where Trump has a giant lead, and Kasich is around to distract potential Rubio voters. Those are safe regardless.

We keep assuming Trump is better off with two main opponents than one. People see him at 38% or so on average, realize it’s tough for him to lose very often with the remainder getting split, and think this is better.

We also know The Donald has high negatives and a good third of Republicans won’t vote for him under any conditions if the alternative is any non-Hillary. Furthermore, polls often show Cruz or Rubio beating him in a straight-up match.

Put all that together, and seemingly Rubio would prefer to have Cruz out of the way, and Trump would like to keep him around in a somewhat weakened state. But we don’t have any idea how well Marco would hold up in a Mano-a-Trumpo fight.

We know Trump is brutal. We know Rubio got Christied. We know a majority of Republican voters are somewhere between angry and furious with Washington D.C. and any vestige of the GOP establishment.

Does Marco really want a situation where he’s one-on-one with Trump and every unpopular senator in creation has endorsed him? He needs to get past Cruz first, but that opens a new risk.

Trump is playing whack-a-mole. If someone is a threat, he beats the shit out of them. He is potentially more than willing to take his chances with Rubio. Multiple opponents means multiple ways to siphon delegates.

Cruz has spent very carefully. He has plenty of financial gas in the tank to persist for a while. After March 15, the race settles into a smattering of smaller states and caucuses for about a month.

By sticking around, he can keep Trump from getting to 1237 before the convention, while holding enough delegates of his own to play kingmaker, get a VP nomination, whatever his heart may desire.

If Trump can get him out of the race before March 15, by having Cruz fail to win any Super Tuesday states with Rubio ahead of him in the vast majority, then The Donald can completely end this on March 15 by beating Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio.

Even if Kasich gets out sooner and Rubio wins his home state, Trump would have a delegate edge heading to caucus states where his voters greater enthusiasm plays up. That is followed by large blue states where he holds an edge.

If everyone is following what is best for them, Rubio and Trump will continue to leave each other alone in the debate and focus their fire on Cruz. Marco needs him to have a rough night so he can present himself as the only Trump alternative. The Donald wants him to have a rough night so he can eliminate another obstacle.

Rest assured, the only way Trump isn’t slugging at Rubio by March 2 is if Marco is too weak on March 1 for anyone to care about him anymore. However, the debate is on February 25. This means another episode of Nobody Likes Ted.

 

 

 

 

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