Since the Republican primary season began earlier this year, there have been 17 significant candidates, creating one of the largest fields in many years. Two candidates have dropped out (Rick Perry and Scott Walker), and tonight’s debate on CNBC — the third among the GOP candidates — could winnow the field even further. Nonetheless, the remaining number of politicians is still large, and so is the quantity of articles that FiveThirtyEight has written about the race. To help guide readers through this thicket a year before the 2016 presidential election, here’s a summary of FiveThirtyEight’s work on the 10 candidates appearing on tonight’s main stage.
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Donald Trump entered the race on June 16, and since then we’ve been skeptical of his chances of winning the Republican nomination. Yes, his poll numbers surged, and he teamed up with the media to create a Perpetual Attention Machine. But Trump has never been all that broadly popular among Republican voters, and so we’ve remained skeptical — before and after the first debate, and during and after the second debate (after which his support dipped).
What was Trump doing all this time? Attacking … everyone, including Fox News. Other highlights include releasing his tax plan, as well as making abrasive and inaccurate statements about immigrants. Basically, Trump has been a top-notch “troll.”
So what next? Trump has to run an obstacle course to the nomination. As Nate Silver put it: He has six stages of doom to overcome, and he’s — arguably — made it past only the first stage. Historically, there is no precedent for a Trump-like candidate to win, which is the main reason not to lump him in with Bernie Sanders.
Which brings us to neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate Ben Carson. We labeled him a background candidate when he announced his campaign in May, and that’s probably still accurate in terms of his chances of winning the nomination. But Carson — despite attracting little media attention early on — has been on a run, thanks largely to his making it into the first debate, performing well and doing the same thing in the second debate. The Carson surge is very different from the Trump one — Carson could win Iowa come February.
We’ve been bullish on Marco Rubio’s candidacy since his announcement in April (and even before). And of the three polling front-runners heading into tonight’s debate, he is the only one with any major establishment support. He has performed well in both debates so far.
Moreover, Walker’s exit from the race may have helped Rubio more than any other GOP candidate. So could Rubio win? His chances will certainly be better if the party establishment decides he’s their best bet.
Rubio is competing directly with Jeb Bush for that establishment support, and Bush’s polling numbers have steadily declined since he officially announced his candidacy in June. Bush is an “establishment” candidate, and as the establishment seems to lose control of the party — or maybe just waits on the sidelines — Bush is not getting the party backing he needs. He has only a weak, nominal lead in the endorsement primary.
Indeed, it’s been a bumpy road for Bush, whose plan to run on his economic record as governor hasn’t worked out the way he had planned. He waffled on the Iraq War and released a pretty weird tax plan. Bush also got some flak for saying that Americans should work more hours — even though he was right, as our economics writer pointed out.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced her candidacy for presidency the same day as Carson, and we were just as skeptical that Fiorina could compete for the nomination. Fiorina barely missed out on the first varsity debate, but after killing it in the JV debate and gaining in every poll taken afterwards, she managed to make into the second debate. On the main stage, Fiorina made her mark and led to some serious speculation at FiveThirtyEight about her chances. She managed to surge from a mere 1.6 percent before the first debate to 15 percent after the second, though she’s fallen back since then.
On March 23, Harry Enten dismissed Ted Cruz’s chances of winning the nomination in not one, but two articles. Two days later, Harry took aim again, claiming that Cruz was like Ronald Reagan but not likable. FiveThirtyEight gave him a mere 2 percent to 3 percent chance of winning the nomination in April and then knocked Cruz down to roughly 1 percent in August.
But though Cruz may not have stood out in the first Republican debate, Harry concluded that he is “unlikely to disappear from your TV any time soon.” And FiveThirtyEight did not lower its expectations for Cruz after the second debate, either. With a sincere apology, Harry recently acknowledged that maybe Cruz is not doomed and gave him a slightly better shot than before at winning the nomination.
In April, FiveThirtyEight gave Huckabee a totally subjective 3 percent chance of winning the nomination. Days before Huckabee officially announced in May, FiveThirtyEight warned that Huckabee might be doomed to rerun his unsuccessful 2008 campaign. The first and second debates did not affect his numbers much, and he was not in danger of dropping to the JV debates (though Walker’s dropping out probably did not do much to help Huckabee). Nonetheless, Huckabee is doing well in the endorsement primary — he’s in third place, just one point behind Chris Christie.
Chris Christie has made the prime-time varsity debate three times in a row and is in second place in the endorsement primary, with 25 points. But his polling numbers have simply never been good enough for him to be able to bounce back like John McCain did in 2008.
Ben Casselman warns that Christie’s economic record as governor should be treated skeptically, given that the state’s structural deficit is nearly as big as it was when Christie took office and the state’s bond rating has been downgraded repeatedly on his watch. Christie is the furthest to the left of all the Republican candidates vying for the presidency, and the “Bridgegate” scandal has not helped his appeal to the Republican base.
Harry Enten laid out the five problems Christie would need to overcome to win the nomination. With his floundering polling numbers, Christie was close to missing out on the first debate, and his promise to enforce the federal ban on marijuana is no longer a very popular opinion.
The first debate did not change Christie’s numbers much, though it did put him in jeopardy of missing out on the second varsity debate. His polling numbers fell to around 1 percent after the second debate, though FiveThirtyEight gave him a 2 percent chance of securing the nomination after he delivered a B- performance.
Despite Kasich’s credentials, he lacks name recognition and almost did not make the first GOP varsity debate. For the most part, Kasich oversaw a good economy as governor of Ohio and did well in the first debate. But his Web traffic was middling, and his numbers did not change much overall. In the second debate, Kasich received a C+ rating from FiveThirtyEight for his performance, putting him in eighth place.
Kasich is an odd case because he is both over- and underrated. Kasich’s chances, like those of Rubio and Bush, would be better if the leaders of the party decided, rather than just primary voters. For the time being, he is in fifth in the endorsement primary, one point behind Rand Paul.
Paul has once again made the main debate. He is campaigning as a libertarian and a tough-minded conservative. But he is more mainstream than his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, and that means he is losing his father’s fan base. Nate gave him a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination back in April and has noted that there are not many libertarians, though many Americans have libertarian views. Rand Paul has not attracted much media attention, has not raised much money and has reached lows in national polls since entering. His performance in the first debate did not do much to help his polling numbers.
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