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2016 REPUBLICAN PREVIEW: Rules and schedule play critical role as GOP candidates scramble to win nomination

Before the advent of the college football playoffs, the best method of picking a top-ranked team was to look at the schedule. If a team loaded with juniors and seniors had an easy schedule, it was the one to bet on.

A similar principle can be applied to this year’s wild race for the Republican nomination – with a few caveats. While Donald Trump continues to hold a solid lead in national polls of Republicans, the rules of delegate selection and the schedule may determine whether anyone can take down the billionaire. In particular, the rules in big states like New York and Florida, with potential “winner-take-all” provisions, plus states like California and Texas, where delegates are allocated by “winner-take-most,” mean a candidate who surges at the right time could essentially win the nomination in the biggest states. Right now, that appears to be Trump as he leads in every one of those states except Texas. Another caveat is that unforeseen events, like sharp performances in the debates, gaffes or terrorism, could easily upend the race.

Usually, polls, fundraising and momentum drive a presidential primary race. Fundraising is less important this year: Trump is self-financing his campaign and the various super PACs can keep a candidate afloat even if they don’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire. Within the Republican Party, the division is usually between the moderately conservative establishment (Dwight Eisenhower, Jerry Ford and Bob Dole) versus grass-roots conservatives (Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan). The GOP “party regulars” of business people, suburbanites and rural voters outside the South usually prevail by combining the few remaining moderate/liberal Republicans with those who are “somewhat conservative” to defeat the hard-core conservatives. Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan in 1980 were notable exceptions. But this year, with the Republican field so divided, we could see a three-way race between the establishment favorites (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich), the religious right and tea party activists (Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum), and pure outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson. If so, the schedule and rules will have major impact. Here’s a look at the GOP schedule and the rules in each key state.

The Republican race officially begins with the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1. We don’t know if Trump supporters will turn out for a public caucus. However, we can be reasonably sure that the religious conservatives who won the caucus for Huckabee in 2008 and for Santorum in 2012 will be able to deliver Iowa for Cruz. While Trump leads the Iowa surveys among all possible voters, Cruz is currently ahead among those who have voted in the past, has numerous endorsements from conservative religious leaders and seems the likely winner there.

New Hampshire has the nation’s first primary on Feb. 9. The Granite State loves mavericks and insurgents. In 1952, Estes Kefauver drove Harry Truman out of the race by defeating him with 55 percent; in 1968, Gene McCarthy drove Lyndon Johnson out of the race by holding him under 50 percent; in 1996, Pat Buchanan demonstrated the weakness of Bob Dole by upsetting him; and so on. New Hampshire seems tailor-made for the outspoken Trump, with the real race for second place. Since New England also usually likes moderates, this would be the place for establishment favorites like Bush or Rubio to mount a charge. (Rubio is worth watching because he has the highest favorability ratings). As a Northeastern governor, Christie could also surprise here.

South Carolina will open the voting in the now Republican base of the South on Feb. 20. (Seven states in the Southern and border regions will be voting on March 1). Social conservative Rick Santorum won six Southern/border states in 2012 and Cruz is favored this year by the same forces. Cruz should win the bulk of Southern delegates, especially in his native Texas, where most of the delegates are selected by congressional districts, thus guaranteeing him a “lane” all the way through the primaries. It’s possible, due to Texas rules that give the leader in each congressional district most of the delegates, Cruz could win 10 percent of the 1,236 needed for a majority in Texas alone. Also, in numerous Southern states, Republican “threshold” rules require that a candidate achieve 15 to 20 percent of the popular vote to win any delegates. For instance, Alabama has 50 GOP delegates. If Cruz won 50 percent of the vote and Trump 25 percent, with no one else above 15 percent, Cruz would get two-thirds of Alabama’s delegates; Trump, one-third; and zero for the other candidates. Those “winner-take-most” rules serve to help weed out lesser candidates.

Florida is the next key state and its predictive record is impressive: Every Republican nominee since 1972 has won the Sunshine State’s primary. Florida will be the “knockout round” for its two favorite sons, Bush and Rubio. Whoever loses there is done for 2016. And if Trump were to win this “winner-take-all” primary, a distinct possibility with so many Northeastern retirees there, he will have one-twelfth of the delegates needed for nomination. Trump victories in both New Hampshire and Florida would be a huge step toward the nomination.

Along with Florida on March 15, the primaries move northward to Illinois, Missouri and Ohio. If he is still a viable candidate, Kasich should win Ohio. (If “favorite sons” like Kasich, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Christie in New Jersey carry their own states, that would be a sure sign Republicans are headed for a brokered convention). Illinois and Pennsylvania are “beauty contests” where no delegates are awarded. Their delegates will be chosen by local party leaders. If there is a brokered convention, the 140 delegates from those two states could hold the balance of power. As would obviously the 10 percent or so of GOP delegates who are uncommitted “super-delegates.”

Any moderate will have to make a comeback in the Northern primaries of Massachusetts and Vermont (March 1), Michigan (March 8) and Ohio and Illinois (March 15). The problem for them is that Trump and Cruz could have built up so much momentum by doing well in Iowa, New Hampshire and the South, the moderates won’t have time to catch up.

New York will be the biggest prize on April 19 and a huge opportunity for Trump. Under New York rules, any candidate who wins a simple majority gets all of the delegates. (The same rules apply in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut). Trump has been a familiar figure on television for years in the Tri-State Area. A Trump sweep in those three states would give him 14 percent of the delegates, thus guaranteeing him a major role in the convention. (Obviously, if Christie has revived his campaign, he would split these delegates with Trump.)

By springtime, the outlines of the Republican race should be set. We’ll know if the early support for Trump and Cruz was real. We’ll also know if the moderates Bush, Rubio, Kasich or Christie are still in contention.

The West Coast begins to vote in May. Republicans in Oregon and Washington have usually been moderate. The last moderate standing should win there. One advantage an establishment candidate like Rubio would have is that he may be the only moderate running against Trump and Cruz, splitting the conservative vote.

California, with 14 percent of the delegates necessary for a majority, could decide the eventual winner on June 7. The Golden State awards most of its delegates by congressional district. In low-turnout minority districts, many Republican votes could be cast by white “stay-behinds” angered by crime, terrorism and illegal immigration. Under such circumstances, Cruz or Trump would do much better than expected in California.

Since the primaries became dominant in 1972, there hasn’t been a brokered convention in either party, because the system is set up to prevent that. But this year could be the exception.

The forecast is for a long and bruising intra-party fight with an above-average chance that the nomination won’t be settled by the primaries. Surely there will be much volatility between now and June. The establishment could band together and turn back the grass-roots conservatives as it has done so often in the past. The support in polls for outsiders Trump, Cruz and Carson could be just a protest. But with over 65 percent of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, voters are definitely in a foul mood. We live in chaotic times; anything can happen – and probably will.

So, stay tuned – and watch Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, New York and California.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. He is the co-author of “California After Arnold” and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America,” a study of national politics.