Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Stable Race

In case you're out there wondering what other twists and turns this political season might have in store for us—Is Trump actually imploding? Will Bernie overtake Hillary? Can Ted Cruz steal the nomination?—a few words of caution:

This race, in spite of the media freak-outs about contested conventions, riots, white knights, and populist revolutions, is at this point pretty stable. The remaining primaries probably won't have much of an effect on the outcome, at least in terms of delegate apportionment.

First, let's look at the Democrats. (Pace Bernie devotees but) Hillary Clinton is going to win the nomination. Consider that his big win in Wisconsin came in a state that is tailor made for him to do well: northern, pro-labor, mostly white. And he did do well! Sort of. Except he's so far behind in delegates, he still fell short. Mother Jones, borrowing some data from Fivethirtyeight, has a rundown of the data here, but the long and short of it is that, even in about the friendliest territory imaginable for Bernie, he still came up a little short in his delegate haul. He'll have to win by even greater margins to overtake Hillary, and that's just not going to happen.

Then the Republicans. Trump's popularity has taken a hit in the past two weeks largely because of self-inflicted wounds, and that has derailed his efforts to win enough a majority of delegates and therefore the nomination outright. As Nate Silver calculates, Trump needs over 40% of the vote in the remaining primaries but his vote share in primaries isn't increasing enough to consistently break that 40% threshold. On the other hand, even the most obtuse of political observers like Charles Krauthammer can't help but notice that Trump still got 35% of the vote after two weeks of non-stop gaffes. Wisconsin made it a lot clearer what Trump's floor and his ceiling are. They might change a little bit in different states, but probably not enough to significantly change the outcome of the nomination contest.

Trump will come to Cleveland shy of the 1237 delegates he needs to win but far more than his nearest competitor, Ted Cruz. Cruz will try to wrest the nomination from him, possibly with the help of Republican Party establishment figures. Trump's delegate lead will be substantial, though, making it politically difficult to deny him the nomination regardless of how party elders might manipulate the rules. But maybe Trump is so toxic that the party will, in fact, turn its lonely eyes to Ted Cruz.

Either way, I don't think it will matter. Let's consider the two most likely scenarios:
  • Scenario A has Clinton facing Trump in the general election, still by far the likeliest outcome. (Sam Wang, polling and data guru, noted when prediction markets had Trump's chances for the nomination plummeting that it was a good time to buy Trump shares.) That Trump can only garner only 35% of the Republican electorate, however, tells us what a weak general election candidate he'll be. That 70% of women view him unfavorably (not to mention 58% of men) spells certain death in November. Barring a black swan event, Hillary will win.
  • Scenario B has Clinton facing Ted Cruz in the general election. In this scenario, Cruz has succeeded in plucking the nomination out of Trump's hands in spite of Trump's initial advantage in pledged delegates. But Trump supporters, convinced that Trump will have been robbed by Cruz and the loathsome establishment forces that drove them to support Trump in the first place, won't line up behind Cruz. They'll stay home or vote for Trump in an independent, third-party, or write-in campaign. (Plus, as Jonathan Chait reminds us, Ted Cruz is also a horrible general election candidate.) This would be game over as any split in the Republican electorate of even a few percentage points means that Hillary will win.
There's a lot of political theater in Scenario B, which is mainly what people are writing about, but it only distracts us from a relatively straightforward conclusion. Nomination markets for Trump and Cruz have shifted substantially and even Hillary's numbers have dropped a bit to 89% (which is still too low), but the market for the general election has been remarkably stable since mid-March, with Democratic chances for winning the White House in the low 70s.

A lot can happen in seven months so America hasn't escaped a Trump or Cruz presidency yet. But it's heartening to consider that, at this point, Hillary's chances of becoming President are about equivalent to the UConn women's chances of winning the 2016 championship at the start of the NCAA tournament. UConn won every game handily.

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