Trump, Cruz and the road to Cleveland

In case you missed it, this is mostly to draw your attention to Nate Silver’s post last Friday on the dynamics of the Republican presidential race: “It’s Probably First Ballot Or Bust For Donald Trump At The GOP Convention.”

Silver has noticed the fact that because betting markets in politics are very thin, they throw up some oddly inconsistent odds:

In other words, the markets are now betting on … a full-blown contested convention where it takes multiple ballots to determine the Republican nominee.

Here’s the thing, though: Those markets don’t make a lot of sense. If you really think the chance of a multi-ballot convention is 63 percent, but also still have Trump with a 56 percent chance of winning the nomination, that implies there’s a fairly good chance that Trump will win if voting goes beyond the first ballot. That’s probably wrong. If Trump doesn’t win on the first ballot, he’s probably screwed.

He’s right about that (Silver usually is). The odds have converged slightly since he wrote (that’s probably not coincidental), but Election Betting Odds still gives a 61.3% chance of a brokered convention and a 50.3% chance of Trump winning the nomination.

I never like to encourage gambling, but that looks to me like a nice arbitrage opportunity. The chance of Trump actually winning at a brokered convention seems to me a good deal less than 20% – for reasons Silver explains at some length. Add to that the fact that there’s a non-negligible chance of Trump losing without it going to a brokered convention, and you can see that those numbers just don’t line up.

It’s also worth pausing to notice how the narrative about Trump has changed in a very short space of time. The key moment, I think, was the exit of Marco Rubio just three weeks ago. Until then, no-one in the Republican Party was primarily fighting Trump; they were fighting one another for the privilege of being the anti-Trump candidate. Now that that stage is over, Trump has become the focus of attack in a way that he hadn’t been before.

And it seems to be making a difference, with Trump looking less confident, making foolish mistakes and stumbling in the polls. He still has a big lead in delegates, but getting to a majority is not going to be easy. You can try it yourself with FiveThirtyEight‘s delegate calculator.

Assuming that Ted Cruz wins well in Wisconsin tomorrow, as the polls now indicate, Trump is facing the prospect of going to Cleveland with a significant shortfall – still well ahead of Cruz, but maybe a hundred delegates or more short of the magic 1,237.

In that event, Republicans won’t find it difficult to deny him the nomination. Their worries will be more about (a) are they stuck with Cruz, or can they somehow win a majority for a more mainstream candidate like John Kasich or Paul Ryan, and (b) either way, how are they going to put the party back together after the inevitable Trump walkout?

But it might not come to that. The last week could turn out to be just a brief hiccup, and Trump will resume his winning way and go on to be nominated on the first ballot. Alternatively (and I actually think this is more likely, although I’m certainly not betting on it), with the Trump balloon now punctured it will deflate rapidly and Cruz will manage to overtake him before the convention.

None of this might matter for the election result, since Hillary Clinton will presumably wipe the floor with either Trump or Cruz. But if you care about the future health of American democracy, it might matter a great deal.

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