Monday, July 20, 2015

Slivers of the Vote

The 2016 presidential election cycle has reached the point where FHQ gets nitpicky about the small stuff. Well, it is important material that is often treated as an afterthought with little or no actual thought. That was what went through my head in reading Patrick Healy's piece in the New York Times on the expansive Republican field of presidential candidates on Saturday.

Look, it is an important story. The size of the Republican field is to 2016 what the primary calendar was to 2008 or what the primary calendar and allocation rules changes were to 2012. All were or are to their respective cycles the monkeywrench in campaign headquarters across the country, the main driver of uncertainty in those races for the nomination.

But here's the thing: All of this requires some precision. Compared to 2012, the primary calendar for 2016 is as clear as an unmuddied lake. Compared to 2012 and because of the greater certainty surrounding the primary calendar, campaigns have a pretty good feel for what the allocation rules will be. However, where the calendar and the rules cross paths with a group of candidates, the number of which now approaches 20, there is uncertainty and a need for careful consideration.1

That consideration was lacking in what was probably a throw-away line in just the second paragraph of Healy's rundown of the diverse Republican field:
And for all of them, the size of the 2016 Republican presidential field is creating extraordinary opportunities to win primaries and delegates next winter with only slivers of the vote.
Now again, the complaint with this is not the substance so much as the precision of the description. As this process approaches 2016, the race will absolutely be for wins in primaries and caucuses as well as for delegates. The problem is that Healy is likely overstating the opportunities that will actually exist for candidates to win primaries, caucuses or delegates.

At issue here is the use of the word "sliver". What constitutes a sliver? 20% of the vote? 15%? 8%? It is not clear. Healy presents it as just sliver which heightens the volatility at the core of the story. However, perhaps the picture is and will be less volatile than that.

First, the process is still in the building phase; as in there are still candidates entering the contest. The first Republican primary debate next month will likely open the winnowing phase. It may not bear fruit immediately, but the seed will have been planted. Candidates will either flourish or they will not, and those in that latter group are clearly the most vulnerable, the most likely to withdraw. That affects the opportunities available.

Second, once the primaries and caucuses get underway next year, even with a winnowed field, the shares of the vote necessary to claim delegates or victories are probably more than the slivers Healy details. It goes without saying that the smaller the share of the vote a candidate has, the less likely it is that that candidate will win a primary or caucus. But that is true for being allocated delegates as well. Part of the lack of precision here is that there will be thresholds that candidates will have to achieve in order to claim delegates. The presence and level of those thresholds varies from state to state, but that they exist at all, again, reduces the opportunities that are actually available to candidates.

New Hampshire is a good example of this. Candidates have to clear 10% to be awarded any delegates. Even a bar that low reduces the chances that a broader base of candidates will win delegates and be able to stake a claim -- point to some results, some data -- in the race next year.

The field of candidates is the main variable adding uncertainty in this race, but there are other variables that provide us with perhaps a clear, less volatile, picture than is being painted in these quiet dog days of summer 2015 leading up to debates and contests to come.

1 History is limited in its ability to help us out on this front. Even the best comparison to the size of the 2016 Republican field -- the 1976 Democratic field -- is imperfect. First, there were fewer candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and that was a period in which the newly reformed nomination system was still in its infancy; the guinea pig stage. Candidates and their campaigns were still trying to figure the new system out in other words. Now sure, the national parties make rules changes every cycle, so there is always some adaptation on the campaign side of the equation. But the learning curve was steeper in 1976 than it is now nearly 40 years later.

One could argue that the evolution of the super PAC era is also contributing factor in this learning curve. Perhaps, but the principle there -- where the money is -- is as it always has been: keep up with the Joneses or get left behind.

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