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Does Trump, Cruz Or Rubio Have the Best Pre-Debate Chance?

With the fourth Republican debate happening on Tuesday, we used this week’s politics Slack chat to check in on the state of the GOP primary. But this is FiveThirtyEight, so instead of just spouting off on the race, we played one of our favorite games: “Buy/Sell/Hold.” As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

Check out our live coverage of the GOP debate.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s been awhile since we’ve played “Buy/Sell/Hold” for the GOP primary. So, let’s play! The rules, as always: I give you the chances for each candidate as implied by the current betting line on, and you have to decide whether to buy/sell/hold stock in that candidate given that price.

OK, Nate and Harry, we’re going in reverse alphabetical order! First up: Donald Trump with an 18.7 percent chance to win the GOP nomination — buy/sell/hold?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): First of all, I just want to say that as someone with a late-alphabet last name, I support reverse alphabetical order.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Very nice. And as someone with a brain, I support selling Trump at 18.7 percent.

natesilver: I’m a sell at 18.7 percent, indeed. Trump has risen quite a bit over at Betfair over the past month or so, which I’m not sure makes sense.

harry: It’s people seeing the calendar go by and Trump still doing decently well in the polls.

micah: Yeah, isn’t the logic something like, “The longer he sits atop the polls, the more REAL Trump’s support is”?

natesilver: But as we emphasize a lot around here, political time is not linear. What you say is true narrowly speaking. I don’t think anybody, us included, is saying Trump has literally zero chance. And those chances will rise the longer he maintains his position in the polls. But polls in early November aren’t particularly more informative than those in October or September or August or July.

harry: Most people are planning Thanksgiving and their Christmas shopping. They still aren’t paying all that much attention.

micah: I vaguely remember one of you saying in a previous chat to start paying more attention to the polls after Turkey Day?

natesilver: Yeah, we’ve mentioned Thanksgiving as a point when the polls start to get more interesting. Historically, that’s about when you begin to see much more widespread interest in the campaign.

harry: We still had time for a Newt Gingrich boom and bust after Thanksgiving last election, and the Iowa caucuses are a month later in 2016 than they were in 2012. Anyway, the point is that Trump is vastly overvalued at 18.7 percent for someone who has such a low net favorability rating among Republicans.

natesilver: re: Thanksgiving, I’m just saying that’s an inflection point at which the reliability of the polls begins to increase. Not saying that they instantly go from meaningless to meaningful. Here let me draw a graph.

[Nate gets up and draws on his office whiteboard.]

IMG_0147 (1)

micah: All right, next: Rick Santorum with a 0.2 percent chance — buy/sell/hold?

natesilver: At 500-1? Sure. Buy a few shares.

harry: I mean, I think I’m buying here. I think he’s probably closer to something like 200-1? Maybe even 100-1?

harry: Win in Iowa and then who knows what happens?

micah: Marco Rubio with a 38.6 percent chance of winning the GOP nomination — buy/sell/hold? According to Betfair, Rubio has the best chance of winning by a wide margin. (I’d sell at that price.)

harry: I think I’m also selling. It’s not that he doesn’t have the best chance; he does. It’s that I would be closer to 30 percent or 33 percent. There are still far too many unknowns. Can he raise enough money? Can he convert high net favorability ratings into actual votes? Can he continue racking up endorsements? He’s still behind Bush in the endorsement race.

natesilver: I’m buying at 38.6 percent, although I don’t think I’m getting a great bargain.

micah: You’re in the tank for Rubio.

natesilver: If I know you guys as well as I think I do, you’re going to be selling or holding a lot of the other candidates. Unless you’re really bullish on Jeb Bush or Trump or Ben Carson, it’s hard to get the numbers to add up to 100 percent unless you have Rubio in the 40 percent range or above. But more importantly, we have seen some signs of progress for Rubio. He’s one of only two Republicans to have received any endorsements in the past few weeks. He’s lined up some big super PAC backers. His favorability ratings remain strong.

micah: Some signs, sure, but it’s all mostly potential still.

harry: Right, lots of potential. Rubio is a hot commodity these days, but sometimes you get berned.

micah: I think we’re all high on Rubio’s chances, but I think the hype has outpaced the reality at this point.

natesilver: The fact that there’s a meme out there that the hype has outpaced the reality makes it less likely he’s overvalued in the market.

micah: Is that really a meme?

harry: Yeah, what meme is that? Is it just in this office?

micah: I just want to see a really good fundraising quarter or a bunch of endorsements (more than the five he’s gotten in the past week). Or for him to even shoot up in the polls, as meaningless as they are.

Anyway, Rand Paul at 0.6 percent — buy/sell/hold?

natesilver: I was making the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ motion.

harry: Buying at 0.6 percent. I’ll go to 1.2 percent. I mean, who the heck knows? Maybe there’s a government scandal involving drones or something.

micah: Yeah, I’d buy to like 3-4 percent.

natesilver: I guess I’m a hold, and I’d be a sell if you forced me to pick. Even at that very cheap price. He’s doing miserably in the polls. And the GOP primary electorate has moved away from libertarianism toward Trumpism so far this cycle.

harry: Right, but as you yourself have said, Nate, things can change. The electorate may be in a different place three months from now.

natesilver: To me, it’s a big assumption that Paul will even be around in three months. He’s risking damaging his brand and possibly inviting a primary challenge by staying in the race.

harry: His main Democratic challenger for his Kentucky Senate seat has already said he’s not running.

I just think lightning could strike.

micah: Lots of disagreement so far! Now we get to the big guns: George Pataki at 0.1 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: Sell.

natesilver: SELL.

harry: He’s pro-choice; he can’t win a GOP presidential primary.

natesilver: He was mayor of Peekskill, New York, which is a lovely town.

micah: John Kasich at 2.3 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: Buying. I’d even go double or triple that, potentially.

natesilver: Yeah, that seems cheap on Kasich. Even if he’s overrated by Acela Republicans. To me, the flowchart is something like this: Rubio will get his trial run as the establishment front-runner. If he fails in that role, people will look at Kasich, Chris Christie, Bush a second time, maybe even Mitt Romney, etc.

harry: Yeah, I gotta agree. Kasich came in very hot, and now he has cooled. But with a Christian conservative having a good shot in Iowa, New Hampshire becomes paramount. Maybe Kasich can break through there.

micah: And Jeb’s struggles help Kasich as much as anyone, right? (save Rubio, maybe?)

harry: Jeb’s struggles help Kasich, Rubio and Christie.

micah: OK, Bobby Jindal, 0.6 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: Again, I’m buying. Here’s why. He has high net favorability ratings in Iowa, and with so many candidates, who knows?

natesilver: I’m buying, I guess, although not as eagerly as Harry. Jindal has blown a couple of big chances in the debates. It’s not clear that he has the retail skills.

harry: He’s 0.6 percent. If he were at 6 percent, then I’d be selling.

natesilver: I mean, if you can’t out-debate Pataki, Santorum and Lindsey Graham, that’s sort of the politics version of hitting below the Mendoza Line.

micah: Mike Huckabee at 0.8 percent?

harry: Buying. Same reasons as with Jindal, and Huckabee once won 20 percent of the national primary vote. Plus, Huckabee can be a very good debater.

natesilver: I guess I’m buying. But I just want to re-emphasize that if someone “should” be at (say) 1.5 percent instead of 0.8 percent, they’re a solid buy but still aren’t going to shift the overall odds very much.

micah: Lindsey Graham — 0.3 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: I’m selling.

natesilver: I’m not buying.

micah: Does that mean you’re holding?

natesilver: It’s a shold for me.

micah: I’m sholding on the word “shold.”

Carly Fiorina with a 1.2 percent chance — buy/sell/shold?

natesilver: Buy.

harry: Buying too.

micah: Up to?

natesilver: Uhhh, 3 percent maybe? She clearly wasn’t able to sustain very much momentum after her sterling performances in the debates. And it’s not clear how interested she is in building out a real campaign architecture. Still, her favorability ratings are fairly good, and she’s a plausible (not saying likely) establishment vs. outsider compromise choice.

Let me also note that I would have assigned only a 3 percent chance to my being able to eat this bowl of ramen without spilling on myself, and I just pulled that off. So sometimes the long shot comes through.

harry: I’m with Nate on this. I’m not sure there is much to add. I will say Fiorina has gotten a few endorsements. So it’s not a totally lost cause.

micah: Ted Cruz with a 10.3 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination — buy/sell/hold?

harry: Holding, I think. He’s quite conservative, yes, but there’s room for him given the divided field and his high favorability ratings

natesilver: Holding. He was a bargain a few weeks ago, but he’s been bid up quite a bit since.

I think there’s a pretty good chance that Cruz has an influence on the race at some point and could emerge as the leading “insurgent” alternative. But having an influence on the race is not the same thing as winning it.

Also on Cruz, I suspect his Harvard-debate-team style is going to rub a few voters the wrong way. It’s not fatal by any means, but it’s one thing working against him. And it’s interesting that he didn’t move up in the polls as much as some people expected after the previous debate.

harry: Of course, Rubio didn’t really move up much either.

micah: Chris Christie at 3.1 percent?

harry: If I don’t buy after the piece I just wrote, I should be put out to pasture.

natesilver: I’m a buy, but a weak buy. I can see Harry’s case for Christie. But fundamentally, he still has a LOT of problems — too moderate, has lost his luster with independent voters, not seen as a party guy, and the whiff of vetting issues.

Like Cruz, he’s a guy who could have a surge at some point but have it prove to be unsustainable.

With that said, having the stage sort of to himself in the JV debate is an opportunity.

harry: Yes. It’s a buy, but not a strong buy.

micah: Ben Carson 6.5 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: Selling.

natesilver: If past patterns are any indication, he’s about to surge to 42 percent in the polls.

micah: Because of the fracas over alleged misrepresentations in his life story?

natesilver: Yeah, after being ganged up on by the media.

micah: You think there’s a lot of smoke but no fire?

natesilver: I think whoever set the campfire did so sloppily. So maybe there are a few embers, but it looks bad. (This metaphor is rapidly going to hell.)

I suppose I don’t think there should be such a big spread between Trump’s chances and Carson’s chances at Betfair.

harry: Reminder: Even before this whole thing with pyramids and fires and whatever it is y’all are getting at, Carson had little shot at winning the nomination. Neither does Trump.

natesilver: Anyway, I’m a shold on Carson.

micah: Last but not least, Jeb Bush at 9.6 percent — buy/sell/hold?

harry: I’m buying. I know, I know — how could I buy on the man whose debate performances remind me most of the Mets’ World Series defense. But he’s still got the most endorsements. He still has a lot of super PAC cash. So I’d go higher than 9.6 percent. Not much higher, but higher. Let it be known, however, that his chances have dropped at least in half over the last two months.

natesilver: When I was putting together my subjective odds, I had him at 9 percent. So that’s a hold, I guess. Bush has gotten barely any endorsements since Labor Day. They’re mostly a relic of an earlier period and the promise his campaign failed to live up to.

harry: Only Rubio has picked up the slack … and not by that much. At least as of yet.

natesilver: At the pace he’s been on recently, Rubio will surpass Bush within a week or two. But here’s the other thing. Republicans don’t have a good reason to choose Bush. His fundamentals aren’t that strong. He’s not with them ideologically, and his electability credentials are meh.

harry: It comes down to New Hampshire.

micah: All right, to close us out here, give me all your subjective odds.

Here are mine:

Jeb Bush — 10 percent

Ben Carson — 5 percent

Chris Christie — 6 percent

Ted Cruz — 14 percent

Carly Fiorina — 5 percent

Lindsey Graham — 1 percent

Mike Huckabee — 1 percent

Bobby Jindal — 4 percent

John Kasich — 10 percent

George Pataki — 1 percent

Rand Paul — 3 percent

Marco Rubio — 30 percent

Rick Santorum — 1 percent

Donald Trump — 5 percent

Other — 4 percent


Bush — 9 percent

Carson — 6 percent

Christie — 5 percent

Cruz — 10 percent

Fiorina — 3 percent

Graham —

Huckabee — 1 percent

Jindal — 1 percent

Kasich — 8 percent

Pataki —

Paul — 1 percent

Rubio — 45 percent

Santorum — 1 percent

Trump — 6 percent

Other — 4 percent


Bush — 13 percent

Carson — 4 percent

Christie — 6 percent

Cruz — 10.3 percent

Fiorina — 5 percent

Graham — 0.1 percent

Huckabee — 3 percent

Jindal — 2 percent

Kasich — 8 percent

Pataki — 0 percent

Paul — 1.2 percent

Rubio — 33 percent

Santorum — 1.2 percent

Trump — 5 percent

Other — 8.2 percent

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.