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Are these hopeless Republican candidates ever going to quit?
It's probably too late to stop Trump. But some predictions on who might be the next candidates to drop out.
Hello, readers! I owe paid subscribers a mailbag by the end of the month. But I also feel like I owe readers a good, straightforward electoral politics story.1 So here’s my patchwork solution. I’m going to pull one of the responses from my draft of the mailbag column — which was running very long — and publish it here as a standalone post. Then we’ll aim for a mailbag by Oct. 31. In fact, there’s still time for paid subscribers to submit questions to the mailbag. And here’s how to subscribe if you like what we’re doing here:
UPDATE: Mike Pence dropped out on Saturday 10/28. Every now and then I do get a prediction right! The rest of the column is preserved in its original state.
In 2016, one of the reasons I was stupidly and stubbornly doubtful about Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination was because, even as Trump led consistently in multiway polls, I thought he might get overtaken once the field came down to two candidates — Trump vs. Ted Cruz or Trump vs. Marco Rubio.
I’m not sure that premise was entirely wrong — Trump won various early primaries with as little as about a third of the vote. But it was mostly wrong, with Trump winning by dominant margins with well more than 50 percent of the vote in states like New York and Pennsylvania even once the field came down to just him, Cruz and John Kasich.
Still, if the idea was that anti-Trump Republicans needed to rally behind a single challenger, they don’t seem to have gotten the message. Reader Tom asks:
What is your prediction for how this Republican field starts to narrow? It seems silly to have 6-7 people fighting it out for 50% of the vote and leaving Trump with a 40 point lead over 2nd place. Do you see the field narrowing before Iowa and, if so, who is most likely to drop out among DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley, Pence, Christie and Scott? Would any of these candidates stand a fighting chance against Trump heads up?
It’s funny because Tom asked this question more than a month ago, on Sept. 23. And yet the only Republicans to drop out since then are obscure ones: Will Hurd, Corey Stapleton, and Perry Johnson. So the question is still just as topical.
Let’s go through the six candidates Tom mentions.2 I’m going to list them in order from least likely to drop out to most likely in the next six weeks. All of this might seem a little seat-of-the-pants, but I did a fair amount of research on this specific empirical question — when do candidates drop out in presidential primaries? — as part of the primary model I built in 2020. The probabilities you see attached to each candidate are subjective estimates — not the output of a statistical model — but they reflect my experience in looking at that data.
Extremely unlikely to drop out in next 6 weeks (2-5% chance): Nikki Haley
For that primary model, the clearest signal I found was this: candidates don’t drop out when they’re rising in the polls. Haley is rising in the polls, albeit to a not-particularly-spectacular number. You don’t drop out when you have momentum.
Very unlikely to drop out in next 6 weeks (5-10% chance): Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie
As a former ABC News colleague of Chris Christie’s, I can tell you that he’s a man who doesn’t mind a television camera. I don’t mean that in a bad way; we had some fun times on set. But he’s getting a lot of airtime — he’s qualified for the next debate — and often relatively favorable coverage from liberal and centrist news outlets as a former Trump ally turned anti-Trump Republican. He’s not really running to win, or at least I hope not— Christie’s favorability numbers with Republican voters are in the tank. But he’s having fun, so why would he quit?
Ramaswamy is also a man who likes to hear himself talk. His campaign has basically just become a big media tour for raising his public profile (to what ultimate end, I’m not sure). Now, Ramaswamy is losing cash, so I don’t know that I’d expect him to stay in the race indefinitely. But I don’t expect him to quit soon. He’s setting pretty modest expectations for himself. And another thing that model found is that less-well-qualified candidates (Ramaswamy has never held elected office) tend to stay in the race longer, other factors held constant. How come? It’s probably some combination of their opportunity cost being lower — they don’t have a job as a senator or a governor to get back to — and party leaders being less able to exert pressure on them to quit.
Unlikely to drop out in next 6 weeks (10-15% chance): Ron DeSantis
DeSantis can still make a reasonable case that he’s the most likely candidate to beat Trump (it’s surely either him or Haley). He’s sort of got a pulse in Iowa, where he’s polling at 18 percent. I don’t think DeSantis has much of a chance, but he has some chance – an 8 percent chance according to betting markets – or at least he probably tells himself as much. Most candidates don’t drop out until they see no path to victory at all. Also, dropping out now would be admitting defeat for a guy who brands himself as a fighter.
But would it be shocking to get an alert tomorrow morning saying DeSantis had quit? I don’t think so. He’s underperformed expectations in somewhat the same way that Kamala Harris did in 2020, and she was an early drop-out. Like Harris, DeSantis might figure that he has enough of a political future that it’s worth leaving with some dignity intact.
(Although unlike Harris, DeSantis has probably burned too many bridges with the frontrunner to be the VP nominee — even as he’s often been hesitant to attack Trump. His campaign has really been the worst of all possible worlds in some ways.)
Almost as likely as not to drop out in next 6 weeks (30-50% chance): Tim Scott
Scott hasn’t qualified for the third debate. He has influential establishment conservatives urging him to quit. He’s been leapfrogged in the polls by another candidate from his state, Haley. And he’s going all-in on Iowa, which can sometimes be the hospice-care stage of a campaign. Scott does have decent amounts of cash on hand, though he’s spending it faster than he’s bringing it in. I suppose the more logical course is for him to trudge along and drop out after Iowa, which at one point had looked like a promising state for Scott. But candidates who have a political future are more likely to drop out than those who don’t. At age 58, Scott is probably just young enough to hold out hopes of seeing a post-Trump GOP.
More likely than not to drop out in next 6 weeks (>50% chance): Pence
Pence also hasn’t qualified for the debate, and when asked on Meet the Press whether he’d drop out if he failed to do so, he was noncommittal and sounded wistful. Pence is extremely unlikely to win the nomination – he’s simply too unpopular with Trump-loving Republican voters. Plus, he’s facing a big cash crunch.
Unlike Christie, though, I don’t think Pence is just running a vanity campaign. Instead, I assume Pence sees his goal as raising concerns about Trump or otherwise making Trump’s pathway to the nomination harder. If he’s not making the debates and doesn’t have a platform, it’s hard to do the former. So he may conclude the better way to hurt Trump is to throw his support behind another candidate – perhaps Haley. I don’t think he’s a favorite to last another six weeks.
Trump is in a dominant position in head-to-head matchups
Now for the next part of Tom’s question: would any of the Republicans stand a chance against Trump in a one-on-one race?
The short answer is: probably not. The simplest reason is because Trump already has more than half the vote — specifically, around 57 precent — in national polls. If you have 57 percent, then everyone else can combine their votes together and you still win 57-43.
With that said, I found several recent3 polls from independent4 pollsters that tested hypothetical one-on-one matchups of Trump against DeSantis or Haley. Trump has huge leads in all of those matchups:
DeSantis does tighten his deficit a bit when other candidates drop out — but only a bit, and he still trails by 40+ points. If you’re down 30-0 at halftime of a football game and you score a field goal on the opening drive of the second half — well, great, that does help a little. But only a little. You still have a huge amount of work cut out for you.
Against Haley, meanwhile, Trump actually has a slightly larger lead head-to-head than he has over the field. That may be because she’s still just getting established in the race, so this could change as she gets more media attention. However, it’s also the case that a lot of DeSantis voters have Trump as their second choice.
Look, if you want to see Trump lose the nomination, I suppose you should be rooting for Republicans to drop out — perhaps everyone but DeSantis and Haley, and then whichever one of them is in a worse position drops out after Iowa and New Hampshire. But as much as I like to be the guy who reminds people not to make overconfident predictions, it’s getting hard to see how Trump loses the nomination.
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If you’re dying for a Doug Burgum take, you’re going to have to look elsewhere, I guess.)
Since Sept. 1.
I excluded polls sponsored by a Super PAC that has supported DeSantis.