The race for the Republican nomination has featured more plot twists and made-for-TV melodrama than the Bachelor. In fact, the polling favorite is a reality TV star whose platform mainly consists of boastful tweets, inflammatory rants, and -- as our office mate Ashton Barry put it -- rallies that resemble monster truck shows.
But, until voting actually begins, it's impossible to know whether 2016 will be the year an insurgent candidate finally sets fire to the GOP as we know it. Perhaps 2016 will revert to the norm of a more conventional nominee after all.
In a few weeks, the state-by-state slog for the 2,472 delegates to Cleveland will start mattering more than tweets or national polls. To clarify a complex calendar, we have devised a scorecard estimating how many delegates a candidate in either "lane" of the GOP - establishment and insurgent - would need to win in each primary and caucus to reach the magic number of 1,236.
Our scorecard relies on the premise, backed by recent polling and past results, that insurgent candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will perform best in areas with few college degree-holders and deeply red states. It also presumes more conventional candidates such as Marco Rubio and Chris Christie will fare best in areas with high educational attainment and in blue states and districts.
It's entirely possible the candidates' coalitions will shatter these assumptions altogether. For example, some models estimate Trump performing quite well in relatively blue parts of the industrial northeast. But our scorecard is not a prediction; it's designed as a yardstick to measure the progress certain kind of candidates' need to make between February and June to stay viable.
With a crowded field of candidates and few winner-take-all states, this process could take a while. A protracted Trump/Cruz split could benefit an establishment candidate, particularly Rubio. But ultimately, the winning campaign is likely to be the one that best understands and capitalizes on each state's unique and often byzantine delegate rules, much as Barack Obama's did in 2008.
A Bit of History
Drawn-out presidential primaries tend to follow clear demographic and geographic patterns. In 2008, Super Tuesday produced a virtual tie for Democrats; Barack Obama edged Hillary Clinton 847 to 834 in delegates. But thanks to Obama's strength with African-Americans and liberal whites, savvy number crunchers could discern that he was "on track" to build an insurmountable delegate lead in upcoming primaries like Maryland and Virginia. It was already over.
In both 2008 and 2012, the road to the GOP nomination followed a familiar path: Iowa gave rise to an "insurgent" evangelical candidate, while New Hampshire affirmed a more conventional "establishment" frontrunner. For a while, southern primaries kept the hopes of evangelical and conservative favorites alive. But ultimately, these candidates crashed into a wall of more moderate northern and coastal states where John McCain and Mitt Romney clinched the nod.
It could be that this year so fundamentally different, and are voters so fed up, that the establishment lane is simply closed to traffic. Much more than in 2008 and 2012, polls show candidates in the insurgent lane (Trump and Cruz) outpacing those in the establishment lane (Rubio, Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich). Perhaps GOP voters have had it with "losers" like McCain and Romney and really are ready to embrace an insurgent after all.
As we have noted, however, there are some built-in advantages for the "establishment" thanks to the disproportionate sway of moderate GOP voters in delegate-rich blue states and districts and factors such as automatic delegates.
So if an insurgent like Trump or Cruz really is breaking through, how and when will we know? It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for Cruz to win Iowa or for Trump to win South Carolina or even New Hampshire at the outset. But it's another thing entirely to rack up the delegates to be on pace to clinch the nomination once the field tapers to just three or four candidates
Mapping Each "Lane" to the GOP Nomination
Our scorecard is a "break even" model: we start with the assumption that the "establishment" and "insurgent" lanes will each end up with 1,236 delegates in June, and work backwards to simulate how each state's delegates would break down along the way. We take into account demographics, past primary results, and the intricacies of each state's delegate allocation rules - for example, proportional versus winner-take-all.
Importantly, we also assume that Trump and Cruz will fare better in caucus and convention states than in primaries. In 2012, controlling for states' demographics, Romney performed about nine points worse in caucuses than in primaries. So accordingly, our model gives insurgents a caucus "bonus" and establishment candidates a caucus "penalty."
As voting begins, remember: at any given point in the primaries, the GOP candidate who comes the closest to hitting his or her lane's delegate cumulative "benchmark" on our scorecard should be regarded as the frontrunner. Here are a few takeaways to keep in mind:
1) Beware of a GOP primary calendar front-loaded with insurgent-friendly states. Thanks to the Iowa caucus on February 1st, the South Carolina primary on February 20th, and the southern flavored "SEC Primary" on March 1st, the start of the primary season should be highly favorable to Trump and Cruz. And although establishment candidates can't afford to get clobbered during this phase, don't read too much into a small early Trump or Cruz delegate lead.
Thanks to a crowded field of contenders and RNC rules mandating proportional allocation of delegates prior to March 15th, strong Trump or Cruz performances across states like Iowa, Alabama, Georgia, or Texas could equate to modest delegate leads that could be overtaken later. In fact, we estimate that an "establishment" candidate could be behind by as many as 150 delegates on March 5th but still be "on track" to capture the nomination.
2) March 15th is likelier than March 1st to determine the race's destiny. The largest single-day delegate jackpot will be March 1st, when 655 delegates will be up for grabs in the seven "SEC" states as well as six others. But the second-largest jackpot will be March 15th, when 373 delegates will be at stake. And thanks to the winner-take-all nature of Florida, Illinois and Ohio, this day will likely define the race's end-game more than any other.
If one candidate wins Florida, Illinois and Ohio and takes all 234 of their delegates, it would likely mean "game over" - such a lead would be tough to make up anywhere else. But, a split verdict would prolong the race into April. Florida, home to Rubio (and Bush, if he is still in the race), is an absolute must-win for the establishment. However, a Rubio triumph in Florida could also heighten the need for Trump or Cruz to win Ohio's primary as a counterweight.
3) A contested convention depends on losing candidates' stubbornness. The Republican convention doesn't open until July 18th. But by the end of March, primaries and caucuses accounting for over 66 percent of all 2,472 delegates at stake will have already taken place. That means after March 22nd, it would be impossible for three or more candidates to all have paths to capturing the 1,236 delegates necessary to win the nomination outright.
Thanks to the size of the candidate field and the fact only eight states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, it could be difficult for any candidate to reach the magic 1,236 threshold. However, the possibility of a contested or "brokered" convention depends on how long candidates who are mathematically eliminated from the prospect of winning a delegate majority decide to persist against the plurality leader. The longer they fester, the higher the odds of a floor fight.
2016 Delegate Scorecard: What Each GOP "Lane" Needs to Win How this works: at any given point in the primaries, the candidate who comes closest to hitting his or her lane's delegate cumulative "benchmark" on our scorecard should be regarded as the frontrunner.
Italics denote a closed primary.
Additional Notes on the Math
Few people realize that American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands account for 59 delegates, one more than the state of Tennessee. In 2008 and 2012, these territories gave almost all their support to the "establishment" candidate. To be conservative, we assume each territory will give two thirds of its support to an "establishment" candidate.
There is also the thorny question of how to handle the 210 votes of "uncommitted" delegates from states such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming, and unbound party officials in other states. Lacking any better way to assign them, we assume they will vote in proportion to candidates' estimated support shares in their states' primaries, caucuses, and conventions.
Cook Political Report's Ally Flinn and Laura Oxford contributed to this report.