As a politically engaged citizen, I’ve become very apathetic regarding the 2016 presidential race. All of my preferred major party candidates thus far have either suspended their campaigns or elected not to run, leaving a handful of pretty unfavorable options: a demagogue, an ideologue, an idealist, and a career politician with numerous stains on her record. In fact, of the five remaining candidates from both major parties, I have no clue who I’d vote for if the election were held today (I’d honestly probably vote third party). However, as an academic, I’m extremely intrigued by all the scenarios that could potentially play out over the summer and into November. This level of electoral chaos hasn’t occurred since at least 1968, and I’m excited to watch it all unfold.
This post will be dedicated to analyzing as many scenarios as I can wrap my head around. Keep in mind that as a college student my qualifications are thin and that I have nothing but speculation, historical analogies, some basic political science, and a hodgepodge of URL’s from more credible sources to back up my claims. But, I’d like to think that I’ve paid a bit more attention to this election cycle than the average Joe and that my predictions at least fall into the category of “educated guesses.”
At this point, I’m confident that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination come late July. Bernie Sanders must win each remaining contest by at least 20 points to catch up with Clinton’s delegate totals, a feat that appears next-to-impossible barring a miracle (and while Sanders has continually defied expectations throughout this election cycle, this one seems a little too ineluctable). Sanders will likely continue to campaign up until the convention, but don’t expect a major comeback of sorts. What’s still up in the air is what will happen on the Republican side, which is complicated by the specter of a brokered convention looming over the party. I’ll primarily focus on the different nominees that could emerge from the Republican field and how they’ll square up against Clinton in November, but I’ll also throw in a few Sanders scenarios for fun. Without further ado, lets begin:
1. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Donald Trump reaches 1,237 delegates before the convention and wins the Republican nomination
Since both Clinton and Trump are presently their parties’ frontrunners, they’ll likely come out of both national conventions as their respective parties’ nominees, so this is a good place to start. Post-Wisconsin, it looks like Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates has narrowed (he needs at least 58% of remaining delegates to do so), but it’s still a feasible possibility that he could win the nomination outright before July. Additionally, the map going forward probably favors Trump, who’s the only remaining candidate that can hit the 1,237 benchmark; not enough delegates remain for Ted Cruz or John Kasich to win a majority.
In this scenario, don’t expect the Republican establishment or movement conservatives to simply capitulate to Trump. Party apparatchiks have a few options at their disposal, including changing the rules at the convention to deny Trump the nomination even with a majority of delegates, or running a third party campaign with a “true conservative” like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan to keep Trump from the White House if he’s indeed the nominee. Changing the rules on Trump would further lend credence to his argument that the system is rigged by the elites and would give him pretext to run as an independent; if Trump is indeed correct that he’s expanded the GOP base, the new voters he’s attracted to the party would follow him out, splitting the traditional Republican vote and handing the election to Clinton. Running a conservative third party campaign would also all but guarantee Clinton the White House for the very same reasons. In a way, however, the establishment might prefer that outcome to rolling the dice with Trump; implicitly allowing a Clinton victory in November would accomplish the goal of preventing a Trump presidency and putting a moderate in the White House without openly endorsing a Democrat (or, more specifically, a Clinton).
But suppose that, in the interest of preserving party unity and preventing a Democrat from reaching the White House, the GOP’s anti-Trump movement decides to concede and back Trump; the general election could get really interesting. Neither Clinton nor Trump has high favorability ratings, which could push voters in a Clinton-Trump matchup to seek a more favorable alternative. Someone like Gary Johnson, the presumptive Libertarian Party nominee, could take a sizable portion of the popular vote (a recent Monmouth poll had Johnson polling at 11% of the vote in a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Trump). I’m dubious that a third party candidate could make huge waves, especially if he/she lacks media attention at this stage in the election cycle, and Duverger’s Law dictates that our first-past-the-post electoral system entrenches a two-party system. Regardless of how well a third party candidate might do in November, don’t expect lasting change (Ross Perot got almost 19% of the popular vote in 1992 but his Reform Party failed to capitalize on that momentum in subsequent elections because of structural disadvantages that benefit the two major parties).
Plenty of pollsters and pundits disagree on whether Trump could beat Clinton straight-up or vice versa, but according to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Trump has both a high floor and low ceiling of voter support. This means that, while his core set of supporters will stick with him through thick and thin, he’ll struggle to boost his numbers and attract more moderate voters, which would result in a decisive Clinton victory come November. I’ve mentioned that Trump could perform unusually well in some swing states across the rustbelt Midwest, from Michigan to Pennsylvania, and his path to the presidency probably lies through those states. But national polls continue to point to a large Clinton lead, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon barring a Clinton indictment by the FBI or the sudden transformation of Trump into a civilized, likable candidate with a coherent policy agenda post-July. Additionally, Trump will probably struggle to win other swing states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, which would make him hard-pressed to find a pathway to 270 electoral votes.
2. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Trump fails to reach 1,237 delegates before the convention but enters with a plurality of delegates
As I said above, I’m starting to think this scenario is becoming more likely. Trump still needs to win at least 58% of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination before the convention, and despite his landslide victory in New York last week, he’s still facing an uphill battle. But regardless, this is a thought experiment; we’ll assume that the Cruz-Kasich alliance made big gains toward the end of primary season to deny Trump an outright majority of delegates before the convention. However, Trump would still enter the convention with a plurality of delegates.
This is where the oft-mentioned “brokered convention” comes into play. Because no candidate would have enough delegates to win the nomination outright on the first round of voting, more than one round would be needed to determine an eventual Republican nominee. In the second round, most delegates become unbound, meaning they can vote for whomever they want, and even more delegates become unbound with each subsequent round (this graphic shows the distribution of bound versus unbound delegates in each round). The convention would continue for as many rounds as needed until a candidate acquires a majority of delegates. The party elites would play a major role in influencing delegates to vote a certain way, but that could mean playing with fire; pushing delegates away from Trump either by pulling them to Cruz or Kasich or putting forward a candidate that’s no longer in the race (or never was in the first place) would create an uproar among Trump’s supporters that would precipitate a major party split come November, like I mentioned above.
From this brokered convention would stem four potential nominees. Trump, with his plurality of delegates, would be the most likely candidate to emerge as the nominee, both because the Republican Party wouldn’t want to see itself implode by going with a different candidate and because he would need to sway fewer delegates in subsequent rounds than Cruz, Kasich, or an establishment plant. If the establishment puts up little resistance, this scenario would play out as if Trump locked up a majority of delegates before the convention, and the question would then turn to whether the establishment decides to self-sabotage later on by mounting a third party conservative campaign. At any rate, history does not favor Trump in this scenario; no Republican frontrunner entering a brokered convention has ever won the presidency.
Even further, very few frontrunners entering a brokered convention have actually ended up the nominee. This is where Cruz comes into play. Assuming the establishment actively doesn’t want to see Trump win the nomination, Cruz, who would have the second-most delegates and be within striking distance of Trump, would serve as the most likely alternative. With his superior ground game, Cruz could mount an aggressive campaign to lobby unbound delegates after the first round of voting by appealing to them in the name of the #NeverTrump movement. However, a Cruz nomination would almost certainly result in a Trump independent run, splitting the GOP electorate and handing the election to Clinton.
Kasich, an establishment politician with executive experience (basically the anti-Trump) who would provide a moderate, level-headed, pragmatic alternative to Cruz, could theoretically emerge as a compromise candidate and win the nomination after a few rounds of voting. Kasich could ameliorate concerns of the establishment, but would suffer a similar (and probably worse) fate than Cruz with regard to a Trump independent run and a split Republican base; his delegate totals and aggregate number of votes hardly justify his nomination and would only further prove Trump’s rigged system argument.
Finally, if the establishment sees no path forward with Cruz or Kasich and still adamantly wants to stop Trump, a candidate like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, or Mitt Romney could emerge as the Republican nominee after multiple rounds of voting. Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and former Republican presidential candidate, has even predicted that this would be the outcome of a brokered convention. The party elites would suggest a candidate not currently in the race such as Bush, Ryan, or Romney to the convention after the first round in hopes that he could be the hero that would save the party from Trump and the country from Clinton. Obviously, Trump would protest and probably split off, and this would be a paragon of the rigged system that he’s fought so hard to expose. But the establishment would bank on the fact that more moderate Republicans, and even some moderate Democrats disaffected with a dishonest Clinton, would turn out in droves to support this candidate. Ultimately, however, I think Clinton would still win this kind of election, and the GOP will have fractured itself beyond repair for the foreseeable future.
3. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Trump fails to reach 1,237 delegates before the convention, and Cruz enters with a plurality of delegates
According to RedState, Cruz could enter the convention with a plurality of delegates. I personally don’t buy that at all, and the fact that he and Kasich agreed to an alliance to stop Trump probably proves that Cruz doesn’t either because he’s ceding precious delegates to a candidate that has a 3.3% chance to win the nomination. But we’ll pretend that somehow, Cruz finds a way to accumulate more delegates than Trump before the convention.
In this situation, Cruz would probably emerge as the nominee, especially because Trump has repeatedly insisted that the candidate who enters the convention with the most delegates should win the nomination. Cruz winning a plurality of delegates would undermine Trump’s argument that the system is in fact rigged. But don’t underestimate Trump’s desire to run in the general election; his core group of die-hard supporters will stick with him no matter who the Republican Party nominates for the presidency, and Trump could leverage them to mount an independent run that would essentially exact retribution on the party that failed to nominate him.
If Trump does run as an independent, Clinton would probably still win the election because of the split Republican base. However, suppose Trump backtracks and honors his now “null and void” pledge. Removing Trump from the equation entirely would shrink the Republican electorate by as much as 20-25% because his core supporters would have minimal incentive to turn out to vote. But head-to-head with Clinton, Cruz would fare better than Trump because traditional Republicans would much rather see him in the White House than a Democrat for at least four more years. Cruz might be losing in the most recent head-to-head polls, but the smaller margin of difference gives Cruz a fighting chance to win the election.
4. Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, no Republican split
Like I said at the beginning, Sanders would need a miracle to win the Democratic nomination, and if Clinton does as well as predicted today, Sanders will be all but finished. But what if Clinton gets indicted by the FBI and becomes disqualified from the race? What if Sanders makes a comeback of epic proportions over the next few weeks and steals the nomination from Clinton? Regardless of how he does it, let’s just pretend that some peculiar and/or unexpected event puts Sanders in the driver’s seat for the Democratic nomination.
Running against Sanders in the general election in this scenario would be a single Republican candidate: either Trump, Cruz, or a candidate not currently in the race that wins a brokered convention (in other words, no independent or third party challengers would split off from the Republican Party). Oddly enough, despite cries that he’s too liberal, too idealist, and couldn’t beat a Republican, Sanders fares better than Clinton against both Trump and Cruz in head-to-head polls, likely due to his high favorability ratings, both in raw terms and relative to his two potential opponents. Unlike their Republican counterparts with Trump, or even Cruz, Democrats would feel perfectly comfortable rallying behind Sanders should he win the nomination over Clinton. The divided nature of the GOP electorate might encourage large swaths of voters to stay home on election day if their preferred candidate didn’t get nominated, but the same can’t really be said about Democrats.
Another variable that could affect the general election: would any third parties or independents benefit from a Sanders-Trump matchup? Gary Johnson seems to think so; the Libertarian frontrunner believes that plenty of Republicans, particularly moderate ones, would flock to his party in the aftermath of a Trump nomination, especially if Sanders represents the other side. Whereas Clinton sits close enough to the political center for mainstream Republicans to justify voting for her as the lesser of two evils, Sanders resides on the faraway ideological fringes of the Democratic Party, leaving these center-right voters without a viable candidate. Johnson could attract some of these voters with his staunch fiscal conservatism.
But what about Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York? A couple of months ago Bloomberg threatened to run as an independent if Trump and Sanders won their respective parties’ nominations, but has since backtracked after watching Clinton build up an almost insurmountable lead. But with Clinton out of the race, he might reconsider. That could leave us with a highly improbable but intriguing race between Sanders, Trump, Bloomberg, and Johnson. Sanders would represent the socialist left, Trump the nationalist right, Bloomberg the statist center, and Johnson cosmopolitan libertarianism, giving voters a smorgasbord of options to choose from. In this extremely unlikely scenario, I can’t even begin to fathom who would win. Because of the Electoral College and the first-past-the-post electoral system in each state, I seriously doubt Johnson would get any electoral votes because I don’t see a state with a large enough coalition of libertarian-leaning voters to make up a plurality. The remaining candidates could each theoretically win enough electoral votes to deny anyone an electoral majority, putting the decision in the hands of the House of Representatives. I can only imagine what kind of circus that would be.
But the Libertarian Party isn’t the only party that could benefit from a Sanders-Trump matchup; the Constitution Party could receive a relatively sizable influx of conservative voters defecting from the Republican Party in protest of Trump. Because the paleoconservative Constitution Party rests on the right-wing fringe of American politics, it probably wouldn’t receive enough mainstream media attention to make huge waves in the general election, but nevertheless, a network of conservative grassroots movements might attract movement conservatives to a truly conservative party should Trump run away with the Republican nomination.
5. Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, independent candidate splits from the Republican Party
If you thought Scenario 4 was long-winded, I haven’t even begun talking about the possibility of a split Republican Party in a matchup against Sanders. In this scenario, either Trump wins the nomination and the establishment mounts a conservative third party campaign, Cruz wins the nomination and Trump runs an independent campaign, or a brokered convention nominates an establishment candidate not currently in the race and Trump still runs as an independent.
No matter which two candidates challenge Sanders in the general election, I think Sanders still emerges the victor. While it’s true that an establishment Republican, either nominated out of a brokered convention or set up as a third party candidate, could attract centrist would-be Clinton supporters leery of Sanders’ economic agenda, Sanders would have the entire left wing of the American political system on his side. Additionally, a split GOP electorate might suppress turnout on the right, further freeing up Sanders’ path to the White House.
As for Bloomberg, he might not have an incentive to get involved if an establishment Republican could gain any traction; Bloomberg wouldn’t want to siphon votes away from the political establishment because it would only help the outsiders. Unless the Democrats start a Draft Biden movement to find an establishment center-left challenger to Sanders (which almost certainly wouldn’t happen considering Sanders’ favorability ratings), I think this scenario is Sanders’ to lose.
A plethora of different scenarios exists for both the conventions and the general election. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few, and I could spend even more time hashing out the ones I’ve already covered, but for now, I think I’ve hit on the most probable ones. I would be willing to bet money that Hillary Clinton gets elected president on November 8, 2016 because the Republican Party has dug itself into a deep hole from which it can’t escape. But anything can happen over the next six-plus months that could fundamentally reshape the electoral landscape. I also don’t claim to be an expert and could be overlooking something critical, but I do know one thing for certain: this year’s Republican National Convention will be nothing like we’ve seen in decades.