2016 Republicans, March 15, State of the Race, Uncategorized

March 15 GOP Preview: A Test of Strategic Voting

March 12, 2016

Time to take a look at the five GOP contests on March 15. We’re done with the final debate, and have voting opinions from over 20 states and territories. When the final story of the campaign is written, next Tuesday will stand as a dividing line.

A whole pile of scenarios wait on the other side. Donald Trump could find himself the undisputed front runner, with a massive delegate lead. He might wind up a semi-strong front runner.

There’s actually a way Ted Cruz exits March 15 with more delegates than Trump (don’t bet on this unless you get really good odds though.) We can justify a two person race, three person race, or even four, if Marco Rubio magically escapes his Florida pit of despair.The key to any eventual outcome is strategic voting. If voters practice it with great relish, Trump is in for a disappointing day. If they fail to do much at all, he’s a favorite in a minimum of 3 of the 5 states and could easily sweep.

Trump is averaging about 35% in polls across the 5 states. As Nate Silver pointed out today, that often proves more than adequate in a four-way race. Absent some strategic voting, he’s going to have a good day.

Let’s go through the states and see exactly how much voter savvy is required to keep the most likely anti-Trump candidate alive as a strong contender in each:

Ohio

This is the easiest project and it’s mostly already accomplished. Kasich is at a poll average of 34%, Rubio at 7%. With Marco indicating today that he can understand why his supporters in Ohio would choose Kasich to stop Trump, expect a few of the stragglers to head over.

Trump is at 36% in the poll average, but is trending modestly downward. The two most recent surveys have him at 34% and 29%. The average poll has around 10% undecided. Interestingly, neither Kasich nor Trump have done particularly well with late deciders.

Rubio is very dependent on the situation. There is almost no chance late choosers pick him. Cruz is the most consistent closer. However, he is likely to pay more attention to every other state.

While he wants a one-on-one fight with Trump, it’s easier to show how Rubio’s existence takes votes away from Cruz than how the governor is pulling them away. Cruz isn’t going to win Ohio. As long as he can’t knock Kasich out, why not let him try to take 66 key delegates from Trump?

At this point, I’d consider Kasich a mild favorite to win his home state. We’ll want to see a poll taken entirely after the Michigan primary for certainty, but he’s in position. Unlike Rubio, he’s now effectively even, perhaps ahead.

A strong second in Michigan might have wrapped this up for him, but he distanced himself from Rubio and did well enough. Unlike other states where his primary support is among more moderate voters, in Ohio, he pulls from strongly conservative voters as well.

In that way, he has a bit more overlap with Cruz, but there’s no reason for strategic voters to pick Ted. Even those who buy the Cruz pitch that the #NeverTrump world needs to unify around him do not believe he can take Ohio.

Trump is attacking Kasich as an absentee governor. He points out he practically moved to New Hampshire ahead of the primary and has spent very little time in Ohio over the past several months.

I don’t expect this to have much affect. The Ohioans currently supporting Kasich in polls are very aware he’s not spending much time at home. It’s not like he was doing this under the radar. Constituents may not track their senators voting records, but they do notice if their governor is on TV from another state.

Unlike Chris Christie, Kasich’s approval rating has held up just fine during the campaign. Ohioans may like the idea of being part of the presidential mix for the first time in generations.

From 1876 to 1920, the presidency regularly ran through the Buckeye State. John Glenn is the most recent serious candidate, having underperformed in the 1984 Democratic contest.

Robert A. Taft was the last to get close to being nominated, falling just short of winning the GOP nomination from Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. John Bricker was the last Ohioan on a ticket, serving as Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1944.

Kasich is getting his state back in the game. He brags about Ohio at every turn, in every speech, practically every debate answer. Christie said New Jersey might be a mess, but you should see what it looked like when he took over.

Instead, Kasich says he’ll make the country look more like Ohio. That’s a very different message. Besides, Christie is spending much of his time following his buddy Donald around the country. It’s one thing to play hooky to run, another to ditch out to play surrogate.

Florida

The place that most requires strategic voting to stop Trump is having the most trouble with it so far. He’s leading in every poll, by anywhere between 6 and 23 points. most importantly, he’s averaging 40%. That doesn’t leave much room for divided opposition.

Cruz is pulling approximately 20%, Kasich close to 10%. That math does not work for Marco Rubio, especially with a very high incidence of absentee or early voting. It’s very possible Rubio will need to win by 5 points on election day just to close an existing gap.

A Monmouth survey from a few days ago indicated Rubio actually had a big edge among early voters. While his campaign did make a big effort on this and the Trump team tends to avoid sweating these sorts of details, it’s improbable Marco actually leads The Donald by 25 points among those voters as the poll indicates.

There are a few extra complications. Cruz was in Florida today. He’s legitimately contesting the primary. It’s not that he thinks he can win, but he believes the only acceptable type of strategic voting is picking him.

He knows a Rubio victory gets in the way of arguing he’s the only person who can defeat Trump. Trying to create a Trump victory is dangerous. It means if The Donald wins Ohio, and Cruz indirectly helps him win Florida, Ted really needs to do well elsewhere to prevent a runaway train.

Rubio had a strong debate and did the best he could under the circumstances to rally his constituents to stand up for him. But he may find himself stuck. Cruz is getting most of his support from Tea Party identifiers.

Trump has the rest of their attention. If Cruz were not pushing in Florida, it’s possible those voters would choose Trump. While it’s fairly safe to figure remaining Rubio voters in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or North Carolina would go to Cruz or Kasich depending on opportunity, we can’t assume Cruz is directly taking from Rubio here.

If that’s true, and if Rubio is still trailing by at least several points, he only has two ways to salvage a victory. One is to have the vast majority of Kasich voters strategically join him. Perhaps his comment that voting for Kasich in Ohio makes sense is another way to tell Floridians to return the favor for him.

Failing at that, and potentially in addition, Rubio needs to actually win over a few Trump leaners. He’s not going to get votes from core Trump supporters. Nobody will. If he can take a couple percent, plus win over the vast majority of undecided voters, perhaps he can squeak out a victory.

Where Rubio was competitive, in Iowa, in Virginia, etc., he did take Trump leaners in the few days prior to the election. Whether this is another example is questionable, but possible.

Regardless, he needs several things to break in his favor all at once. There’s a reason Trump is currently a 7 to 1 favorite in the betting markets.

North Carolina

Between the middle of February and early March, Ted Cruz pulled from a virtual tie to well ahead of Marco Rubio. That makes him the designated anti-Trump for this contest. His odds of victory depend on which polls you want to pay the most attention to.

One recent poll has Trump at 32, Cruz at 26. Plenty close enough. That was with 20% undecided too. Rubio had 11, Kasich 11. If you figure a few Rubio people go to Cruz, along with the undecided group and Ted’s ability to turn out his vote, it’s an easy victory scenario.

However, the most recent poll, taken after the Michigan primary, has Trump at 48, Cruz at 28. Rubio is at 8, Kasich 12. This math does not work so well for #NeverTrump. If this is more accurate, he’s going to win North Carolina, regardless of how anyone organizes the opposition.

A third poll splits the difference between the above two. Cruz is doing a fairly good job of consolidating the anti-Trump vote, but there may not be enough of it to win with. It’s the only one of the March 15 states that is assigning delegates proportionately at both the state and congressional district level.

Cruz will get his share of delegates regardless of who the winner is, especially helpful for him if Trump gets a boost from his rally in Chicago being stopped by protestors. Even without that, The Donald is probably in the driver’s seat here.

Missouri

Another spot where Cruz is serving as the Great Anti-Trump Hope. His odds are solid here. He’s done well in several neighboring states. There’s only one poll, taken over the past seven days.

Trump leads at 36, Cruz at 29, Rubio and Kasich in high single digits. Plenty of undecided voters. The same pollster took a look at Kansas ahead of the caucus there. They do not try to push unsure or leaning candidates into a decision.

That means Trump’s 36 is even more solid than usual. It’s extremely unlikely his final number dips below it. But Cruz has already separated himself from the others. He doesn’t need to get anyone to leave Rubio and Kasich, merely to pull the undecided.

Whether it’s strategic voting, or Cruz and Trump are just preferred here, this is very much a two person race, at least if the one poll is correct. It matches my preconceived notion, so I’m inclined to accept it. Keep in mind, that’s a terrible way to make decisions, but…

One other note. Rubio is in single digits here, one point ahead of Kasich. His trajectory is negative, as we know. It’s quite possible Kasich finishes ahead of him here. The same is true in North Carolina.

Even if Rubio survives Florida, if Kasich wins Ohio, we’re seeing signs that voters outside of their home states think the governor is the candidate behind door number three. Not only does Marco need a win, he needs that win to change how voters see him.

Illinois

This was the confusing one, even before the Trump rally at UIC turned into a shitstorm. Trump has his lowest numbers of the March 15 states, averaging 31%. That usually isn’t quite enough for a win.

A designated non-Trump would have an excellent chance of defeating him. But there’s a catch. This is the one state where we don’t know who that person is. Cruz is narrowly ahead of the others. He’s around 20% on average.

Kasich is just under that level, while Rubio scored similarly once and sits a clear fourth the other time. In both cases, Kasich + Rubio is very competitive. If a Rubio supporter wants to play strategy, they first need to decide whether to support Cruz or Kasich.

That’s often a difficult choice anyway. For some Rubio fans, Cruz is too rough around the edges, Kasich not conservative enough. A strategic advantage is a good way to break the tie, but which way. It’s nobody’s home state. There’s little polling difference.

There’s another wrinkle. Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all. Illinois and Missouri are winner-take-all in each congressional district. Cruz is at an advantage in the more Republican Downstate (basically most of the state beyond the Chicagoland area) section, Kasich in and around the city.

In a world where Rubio is viable, there’s actually a split, with Kasich at a likely edge in the swing districts surrounding the city, and Rubio, if patterns from elsewhere carry over, better suited to the Democratic districts in Chicago itself.

To confuse things further, Illinois is an open primary. Trump and Kasich tend to benefit from cross over voters more than Cruz and Rubio. In Cruz’s part of the state, not that much of an issue since GOP voters are in the majority. In the suburbs, with a good amount of Independents, Kasich and Trump would duel.

The Rubio-favorable districts are full of Democrats who will mostly stay in their own primary. The surviving Republicans are decently conservative, but prefer the more inclusive Rubio. If he were a bit stronger, he could easily win these areas, even while gaining a modest amount of actual votes.

Expecting voters to get that strategic is probably pushing it. Each candidate would need to already find themselves in strong position in the appropriate area and then rely on friends and acquaintances to share their preferences with those they can influence.

That is the goal of a political campaign, so you never know. If anything like this were to happen, Trump could win the state but give up the majority of delegates to the candidate best suited for a given congressional district.

A dangerous game, even if the candidates were coordinating their efforts. Fall a little short, and Trump wins most or all of the districts. It’s the overall March 15 picture on a smaller scale. Chicago proper is Florida, the suburbs are Ohio, Downstate is Missouri (which it actually borders.)

At this point, I’d give Cruz the edge as the non-Trump with the best chance of winning Illinois, but Kasich the advantage in winning more districts. In the areas where Ted will run best, Trump is fairly strong and may get a boost from backlash against the protestors.

However, suburban voters may run away from the prospect of conflict and into Kasich’s more conciliatory arms. All of this is pure speculation, but it’s all we’ve got right now.

Regardless of the state in question, we’ll see more polling between now and primary day. Checking to see if the margin between Trump and his closest competitor is increasing or decreasing, and on the overall non-Trump percentage held by that candidate are the best clues.

Ideally, a few of the same pollsters from the past few days will weigh in again, rather than us mostly working with new entrants. So far, GOP polling is consistently accurate, once you wash the variables and tendencies through.

It’s a bit further reach to try to predict Illinois and Missouri congressional district results. An interesting race is headed for a very interesting Tuesday.

 

 

 

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