Two down, plenty to go

There’s still more than four months to go until the first official contest of next years US presidential election, the Iowa caucuses on 1 February. But already the field is starting to narrow: Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who was once considered a front-runner, this week announced his withdrawal from the Republican race. He was the second to suspend his campaign, after former Texas governor Rick Perry, who bowed out two weeks ago.

That leaves 15 contenders still officially in the running for the Republican nomination. Patently some of them are not serious, but any attempt to list who and how many fit into that category is fraught with difficulty. Indeed, one who on most criteria would appear obviously unserious – business celebrity Donald Trump – is maintaining a clear lead in the opinion polls.

Five candidates have been so consistently failing to register in the polls that they were not included in last week’s televised debate: Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Rick Santorum. With such a long time to run, it’s not impossible that one of them may still succeed in breaking into the top tier, but the odds are heavily against it; the shortest odds that Sportsbet quotes for any of that group are for Jindal at 33-1.

That leaves ten. On Sportsbet they range from Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, favorite at 7-4, all the way down to fundamentalists Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee at 25-1.

The polls, however, order the field somewhat differently (I’m using the RealClearPolitics aggregates). Bush can only manage equal fourth, on 7.5%; ahead of him are Trump with 27.5%, conservative neurosurgeon Ben Carson on 18.8% and Florida senator Marco Rubio on 8.5%. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, ties with Bush for fourth, while Cruz is a close sixth on 6.5%.

Even separating out the mainstream candidates from the crazies, as has been possible in past years, is difficult this time. But of the leading ten, if one labels Trump, Carson, Cruz, Huckabee and Kentucky senator Rand Paul as the crazies, then they command about 61% in the polls between them, to about 29% for the other five. But in the betting odds the magnitudes are reversed, with the mainstream candidates given about a 44% chance in aggregate compared with about 28% for the crazies.

What I said in 2011 still holds:

With nothing actually at stake so far, significant numbers of Republican voters are using the polls to vent their frustrations or give rein to their wilder fancies. But pundits expect that when the choice is upon them next year, enough of them will return to planet Earth to put the nomination into safer hands.

It’s clear that Republican voters, even more than last time, are looking for something different, with a black man (Carson), a woman, a Cuban-American and of course a big-haired reality TV star among the top performers. And “different” is the one thing that Bush, a son and brother of presidents, can’t really lay claim to.

That’s not to say that the Republican establishment is ready to panic just yet. A Trump candidacy remains largely the stuff of fantasy, albeit perhaps with a probability now slightly above the 2% that Nate Silver credited him with last month. But not only are Trump and the other crazies constantly taking positions that alienate mainstream voters (Carson last week said that no Muslim could be fit to be president), but in doing so they are pushing the mainstream candidates further to the right, into territory that could spell electoral suicide.

And so the circus rolls on: next stop Iowa.

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