SALT LAKE CITY, March 8, 2016 – Sports analogies are great for politics, because Americans generally like sports (whatever the particular may be), and sports are pretty simple to understand.
The game for GOP presidential hopefuls has always been called a race—a misnomer. Instead, it’s like a grueling decathalon. To be more precise, it’s a Pentacontathalon: 50 events (plus a few extra for the territories and the District of Columbia, but you get the drift). It’s a lot of different events. In theory, each event is independent. John Kasich, for example, could perform well in Michigan, though he does poorly in Texas.
Presidential primary-as-pentacontathalon is useful because pundits have a tendency to declare the contest over at about the quarter mark. But we won’t know the winner until we have results from enough of the events so as to mathematically eliminate all other contenders.
Typically, it’s been safe to declare early, since the eventual winner can be identified by strong performances early on.
Not this year. Not by a long shot. But pundits hold on to old habits.
Ed Rollins, after Super Tuesday, announced that the race was over. That Trump was the presumptive nominee. Eric Bolling of Fox News has been exclaiming that math simply prevents anyone but Trump from getting the nomination.
Some 35% percent of delegates have been awarded. We’ve seen voting in 22 of 56 jurisdictions. So we are somewhere between one-third and halfway through the pentacontathalon. Math tells me that, if voters in the remaining 34 jurisdictions vote for someone other than Trump, that someone other than Trump will be the nominee.
In no other event, sporting or otherwise, would we declare victory and defeat so early, particularly when the contest is still so close.
Consider that Mitt Romney, at this point four years ago, had 393 delegates. Trump now has 384 by comparison. Of course the two cycles aren’t perfectly comparable, because the schedule and order of voting in various states has changed. This time around, more have voted. Romney had had secured 56% of the available delegates by March 7, whereas Trump now has 44%.
And four years ago at this point in the process, four candidates remained in the field. Each thought he had a viable path. Romney’s closest rival, Rick Santorum, had 16 percent of delegates, Newt Gingrich 15 percent, and Ron Paul 13 percent.
This year the second place candidate has more than a third of all delegates, and the next man half of that.
It wasn’t until the mid-to-late March primaries that Romney really put significant distance between him and his rivals. For the rest of the month, he hauled in 61 percent of delegates. This year, it is more likely that the rest of March will continue to be competitive—in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan.
Of course there is value in simplifying the race by projecting out winners based on past performance. It generally works. But it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, of sorts. Because Trump has won in the past, he must win again, so the logic goes.
The most obvious benefit of declaring a victor so early—from the leader’s point of view, at least—is that candidates not still competing pose no threat. How much regret must Tim Pawlenty have for surrendering before a single vote was cast? Could Scott Walker still be a viable candidate had he stayed in the contest?
This primary cycle is still very much up in the air.
Yet too many observers are still stuck in the old logic that says it isn’t. It might be simple, but it’s not that simple.