What if too many candidates split the ‘mainstream’ vote?
Having contested the last two nomination processes through to the death, few people better understand what it will take to win this year’s Republican race than Mitt Romney.
Romney weighed in with his assessment of the current contest today and, largely, I agree with his analysis. Particularly that Donald Trump will ultimately not be the candidate.
His reading of how the contest will divide up is also in line with mine – that the candidates can be broadly split into one of two clear categories. Romney describes one as the ‘insurgent, outspoken, Tea Party’ bracket’; the other a ‘mainstream conservative’ one. I would add to that ‘candidates that oppose Trump, versus those that don’t’.
Romney’s first group consists of Trump and Ted Cruz; the latter includes Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina and Lindsay Graham. Romney says someone from the second group will win. The current Betfair market concurs, with Bush and Rubio taking out 55% of the book.
However, I can see two problems with that analysis. First, are these ‘brackets’ so fundamentally different? Rubio won his Senate seat as a Tea Party favourite, for example. Christie was once heralded as an outspoken insurgent.
And which one does second-placed Ben Carson belong in? Presumably the ‘insurgent, outspoken’ one. If so, he and Trump are the two early leaders, and Carson just raised an extraordinary $20M in the last quarter. It is unlikely that both will disappear off the radar before Iowa, and there’s a very good chance one of them will win there.
That will create an extraordinary scramble in New Hampshire, which history suggests is an absolute must-win for the ‘moderate’ wing. If all six of the bracket stay in until that stage, they could split the vote and let current runaway leader Trump in.
Perhaps it won’t be so crowded by then. The next main TV debate will be restricted to candidates on 3%, which will whittle down the field. However outsiders like Kasich and Christie are very active in NH, and unlikely to go away just yet. Their presence is terrible news for Bush, who is highly unlikely to be able to reach out to that ‘insurgent’ wing.
Of the ‘moderates’, Rubio is the one best placed to reach out, and that’s one reason why he’s set to assume favouritism. However he too has cause to fear being crowded out early on, and stuck below 20%.
So whilst Rubio is red-hot in the markets and, in my view, the likeliest winner and most electable candidate, he doesn’t appeal as a bet at this stage. Better instead to oppose (lay) Bush, for the seven reasons laid out earlier and back outsiders like Carson and Fiorina. The lesson of recent Republican contests, as Romney knows only too well, is to avoid taking short odds during the early stages.