2016 GOP Primary FAQ: A Guide for non-Wonks

This image was supposed to be a joke, but it accurately represents the state of the GOP nominating contest.

Here is an update on the 2016 GOP Presidential nominating contest, written for folks that want to be informed but don’t want to actively follow the race on a day by day basis (and for good reason – it is an awful thing). All but the most isolated of us are still going to end up talking about it on Facebook or at work, so here is a guide for how to do that along with some reality-checks against the more disturbing things you might be hearing.

As bizarre as this GOP primary has been, it has also been very stable, so not much is likely to change between now and the Iowa caucus on February 1st (sensational TV declarations and clickbait headlines not withstanding).

Who is winning?

Polling firms, advertising firms, and media organizations that cover the race and/or air ads by the campaigns – these businesses are the clear winners of the GOP race so far. In terms of candidates, there can be no winners yet, because no votes have been cast. But what about all the media coverage of the polls about who is winning? Exactly.

Who is losing?

The Republican establishment and our established republic. One thing that is clear is that even if the GOP establishment manages to get one of its candidates nominated – which is still likely for one or more reasons – this is probably the last time they will be able to do so. There is also the problem for our country, for the political institutions that support our republic, when one major party’s entire field of presidential candidates are all brazenly lying, inciting violence against the republic, against women, against immigrants, and against refugees. This is probably the most anti-American political movement since pro-slavery secessionists. Seriously.

[As an aside I want to emphasize this point, which is sometimes mentioned, but not really focused on enough, that nominating competitions are complicated but do tend to come down to who had the best ground game and/or the most establishment support. I mention this because coverage and commentary tend to focus on four things: polling, establishment support, fund raising, and ground game. Polling has been going for Trump for months now. Establishment support, which is largely being withheld in the GOP race, is so far trending Bush/Rubio/Christie/Kasich. Fund raising was or has been good for Cruz, Rubio, and Bush (and of course Trump is self-financed). The only ground game anybody seems to be writing about is Cruz’s, which by all accounts is looking a lot like the effort that won then-Senator Obama the Democratic nomination in 2008. This is important because among those four indicators, polls are the most covered despite being the least predictive. As such, there really are no candidates who can be called winners or losers until votes start being cast.]

This whole thing seems kind of scary, do 40 percent of Americans really support Donald Trump for President? 

No, no, no. No. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has estimated that Trump’s GOP supporters make up roughly 8% of the electorate, which means that fewer than 1 in 10 American adults are supporting Donald Trump for President. Also, while you can win an election with 35% of the vote if nobody else gets a bigger share, you cannot win a nomination without 50%+1 of the delegates. In other words, Trump can only win the nomination if the rest of the field stays so divided that he is able to win primary after primary with only 35%-ish of the vote, and that is unlikely to be the case after the end of February.

Why are there so many GOP candidates?

Two things: First, despite the great likelihood that they will be facing a historic, popular, universally known, well-funded Democratic nominee who is strongly favored by demographic voting trends and riding on an economic recovery that her party will (deservedly) be getting credit for, GOP folks actually think this is a good year to be the Republican nominee. Second, the GOP is in total disarray, so a lot of different candidates can imagine themselves winning by imagining their faction of the GOP is the “true” one that will emerge and rally/convert/dominate all the others.

What is up with <insert name here>?

(Listed in order of how they rank on the BetFair market)

Marco Rubio

Conventional Wisdom: Rubio is the most viable establishment-friendly alternative to Trump/Cruz/etc and is, based on polling numbers, the best placed to win the nomination after those candidates explode/implode/magically vanish. He needs to come out of Iowa with a strong third place (or better) showing that exceeds expectations in order to get positive buzz going into New Hampshire to then emerge as the consensus establishment candidate heading into South Carolina and beyond. Simple!

Conventional Counter-Wisdom: Rubio is a fantasy! He is spending all his money on ads, does not seem to be campaigning much, doesn’t have a ground game, and seems to believe that he can lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina but then somehow still win Nevada and then dominate the remaining nominating competitions (which favor moderate and/or establishment candidates). “Everything breaks my way” is not a campaign strategy.

What to say if you want to change the topic, agreeably:

“Rubio has the best chances and momentum of any establishment candidate, for sure. But the test of a would-be executive is if he has built the organization to actually win primaries, so we will just have to see. Hey did you see Jeff put some donuts in the break room this morning?”

What to say if you want to change the topic, disagreeably:

“Only in this parade of fucking nutjobs does Marco Rubio look like a good, safe bet for the establishment. He got passed over for VP by Romney in 2012 and presumably the reason why is an attack ad waiting to happen. He isn’t showing up in the Senate or campaigning much, making you wonder if he is planning on being a Camp David President. Senator Rubio is also unelectably right-wing, despite his efforts to hide it. He has just a couple of reasonable policies, like student loan reform, sitting atop a heap of paleoconservative tax cuts, social policies, and military adventurism; the public policy equivalent of a little flower bud hoping nobody will notice that it is growing out of a decades old pile of shit. Hey did you see Jeff brought some cheap grocery store donuts in today?”

Smart links to share:

Marco Rubio Is the Nominee in Waiting (William Saletan @ Slate)

Is Marco Rubio a Paper Tiger? (Jamelle Bouie @ Slate)

Why Isn’t Marco Rubio Winning? 5 Theories (Jonathan Chait @ NYMag)

Marco Rubio’s strategy is utterly baffling (Andrew Prokop @ Vox)

Ted Cruz

Conventional Wisdom: He has positioned himself to pick up those voters that (he believes) will eventually abandon Carson and Trump (and he has picked up some support from Carson’s collapse). Senator Cruz has built an extensive organization in Iowa and across the country, so he is seen as likely to meet or exceed his polling numbers when people actually vote. Lately, he has also come to be discussed as a possible compromise candidate between the desperate-to-avoid-Trump GOP establishment and the candidate-crazy-train-riding GOP base.

Conventional Counter-Wisdom: That all may be true in the alternate reality of the GOP primary, but in the general election Senator Cruz will be less electable than Donald Trump. While he may not have any single policy as crazy as “ban all Muslims,” Cruz is more radical than Mr. Trump on tax policy, foreign policy, support for gun violence, and really not that much less crazy about immigration.

[As an aside, I would go further and speculate that even if the GOP establishment allows or even helps Cruz to win in order to avoid nominating Trump, I don’t think they will actually support him in the general election. The “No way Clinton can get re-elected” narrative will congeal immediately after (if) she locks in the Democratic nomination, and so the 2020 GOP primary will probably start in June before the 2016 primary is even determined. This is in no way conventional wisdom, though.]

What to say if you want to change the topic, agreeably:

“He has done a good job of courting Trump supporters while attacking establishment candidates and/or Democrats. I read he has solid fund raising and strong organization in many states, so he is ready to go the distance. Still, I don’t know how someone wins a nomination from a party when he has angered the power brokers and donors as much as Cruz has. Anyway, it was nice of Jeff to get a wide selection of donuts for folks to choose from.”

What to say if you want to change the topic, disagreeably:

“Ted Cruz is fucking creepy! His policies are batshit crazy and how is he going to run the executive branch of the government when he can’t even understand the basic rules of the Senate? It is amazing the GOP base loves this guy so much, since as a GOP Senator he has scored enough own goals to be the Democratic MVP. And did I mention he gives me the creeps? Anyway WTF is with Jeff wasting one of only a dozen spots in the donut box on the nasty glazed-with-strawberry-icing-and-sprinkles?”

Smart links to share:

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio Are Battling for the Future of GOP Foreign Policy (Jonathan Chait @ NYMag)

Thousands of Ted Cruz Supporters Play a Game That Might Win Iowa (Clare Malone @ FiveThirtyEight)

Ted Cruz taps into disaffected conservatives’ anger in a bold play that just might work (Doyle McManus @ LATimes)

Ted Cruz is even less electable than Donald Trump (Matthew Yglesias @ Vox)

Donald Trump

Conventional Wisdom: For several months, it was “this time he went too far. This is the beginning of the end of Trump.” Some still say this, but most have shifted to the new conventional wisdom: Donald Trump actually could win the GOP nomination. He can self fund his way through the entire primary season, he has dominated the polls nationwide and in every state. Previously Carson and recently Cruz challenged that dominance in Iowa, but even still Trump and Cruz are currently tied there. Maybe the GOP base really could propel a self-funded outsider candidate across the finish line. Even if he wins the nomination, he cannot possibly win a general election. This is so weird.

Conventional Counter-Wisdom: The appearance of his chances of winning the GOP nomination have changed a lot more than the reality of his chances of winning the GOP nomination. People that read the details of polling data have pointed out that Trump’s supporters are mostly folks that haven’t voted in primaries (or caucused) before, so it remains to be seen if his polling numbers will translate to real votes. Even still, he only dominates polls with 30ish percent of the vote because the other 70 percent is being divided so many different ways. Most GOP voters do not want Donald Trump to be their nominee. He has no establishment support. Even if he somehow overcomes all of this to win the GOP nomination, he cannot possibly win a general election. This is so weird.

What to say if you want to change the topic, agreeably:

“I try to give everybody a fair hearing, but that guy is just fucking crazy. I work hard to remember that 35% of GOP primary voters is only, like, 8% of Americans – and I already knew there were that many crazy folks. I know he has money and hype, but I think his odds of winning are about as good as this donut’s odds of not being eaten by me. lololololol”

What to say if you want to change the topic, disagreeably:

“Did you see the Daily Show segments about how Trump wants to fuck his daughter? Seriously! He talks about having sex with his daughter. On morning shows! It is almost as gross as what he says about Muslims and Mexicans! He kinda makes me hate the world. I need another donut now… …fuck it I am taking the one with strawberry icing and sprinkles. Fuck. It.”

Smart links to share:

What Is the Trump Endgame? (Jonathan Chait @ NYMag)

GOP: A NeoFascist White-Identity Party? (Michael Tomasky @ The Daily Beast)

Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls (Nate Silver @ FiveThirtyEight)

The media has no idea how to deal with Donald Trump’s constant lying (Dylan Matthews @ Vox)

Jeb Bush/Chris Christie/John Kasich

Conventional Wisdom: Must emerge from the pack with victory or strong showing in New Hampshire if he is going to have any chance at all.

Conventional Counter-Wisdom: N/A [None of these candidates are viable enough to support more than one theory about their chances.]

What to say if you want to change the topic, agreeably:

“Jeb who? Hey, I should thank Jeff for bringing in those delicious donuts today – what a way to start the year!”

What to say if you want to change the topic, disagreeably:

“Christie is the loud one from YouTube, right? Anyway, fuck a bunch of Jeff and his damn donuts that already undermined my resolution to eat less sugar  – what a way to start the year!”

Smart links to share:

New Hampshire is Code Red for the GOP Establishment (Jim Newell @ Slate)

Jeb Bush’s Problem is Jeb Bush (Harry Enten @ FiveThirtyEight)

John Kasich Is So ‘Underrated,’ He’s Overrated (Nate Silver @ FiveThirtyEight)

Chris Christie Shifts Focus to Iowa, Betting Big on Governor’s Team (Zeke J Miller @ Time)

Ben Carson/Carly Fiorina/Rand Paul/etc

Conventional Wisdom: N/A [None of these candidates are viable enough to support a single theory about their chances.]

Conventional Counter-Wisdom: N/A [None of these candidates are viable enough to support more than one theory about their chances.]

What to say if you want to change the topic, agreeably:

“Wait, who is that again? Is Carson the guy with the Jesus selfie painting in his house? … Oh hey Jeff, thank you for the yummy donuts. Have a great day.”

What to say if you want to change the topic, disagreeably:

“Wait, who the fuck is that? Isn’t Fiorina the one who lied about “baby parts” and then some guy basically quoted her while shooting up a Planned Parenthood? It’s weird how these GOP folks don’t care about terrorism when the target is all American women. … Oh hey Jeff, thank you for the yummy donuts, it is good to be clear that you would rather be liked by the whole office than be supportive of my new diet. Have a great day.”

Smart links to share:

N/A [Smart people are no longer posting about these candidates.]

What is a one sentence summary of the primary?

Trump and Cruz are fighting for who wins Iowa while everybody else is just hoping to beat expectations in the caucus and thereby get a boost heading into the New Hampshire primary, and nobody has a clue what will happen after that.


That is the current state of the GOP primary. Please come back two or three days after the Iowa caucus for an update. Also, I want to apologize to anyone named “Jeff” who may have taken offense to my use of that name in the hypothetical-break-room-conversation. Unless you are someone named Jeff who actually brought in the strawberry-icing-with-sprinkles donuts, because seriously those are gross.

Got a question or comment? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

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