SEC Primary on March 1 Could Narrow GOP Field to Just Two: Perhaps Trump and Cruz

Though the GOP presidential primary process kicks off with a great deal of media hoopla in February, the four states with contested election events that month might turn out to have little impact on the actual race for delegates to the GOP convention in July.

Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses on February 1, New Hampshire with its first-in-the-nation primary on February 9, South Carolina, with its first-in-the-South February 20 primary, and Nevada with its February 23 caucuses get the electoral process started.

In contrast, the eleven states holding primaries or caucuses on March 1—the so-called SEC primary—will have a significant impact on the allocation of delegates and have the potential to narrow the race for the GOP nomination down to just two candidates—and they could be Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.

Of the 2,470 GOP convention delegates (1,236 of which are needed for the nomination), only 80 (barely 3 percent) will be allocated immediately in February, via the New Hampshire (30 delegates) and South Carolina (80 delegates) primaries. Another 60 delegates (slightly more than 2 percent) will begin the allocation process in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, a process that could take several months to be finalized.

For all that is written about the significance of the Iowa caucus results, the preliminary result that will declare a “winner” on February 1 has everything today with momentum and media narrative, and not so much with final delegate allocation. In 2012, for instance, Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses in February over Mitt Romney and third place Ron Paul. By June, however, after several subsequent steps in the delegate allocation process, Paul emerged victorious, earning 21 of Iowa’s 25 unbound delegates to the GOP convention that year.

In contrast, 595 of the 2,470 GOP convention delegates—24 percent– will be up for grabs on March 1, “SEC primary day” across eleven states. (Three additional states—Colorado, North Dakota, and Wyoming, are also scheduled to hold “non-binding” caucuses the same day).

Though none of these eleven states are “winner take all,” all but one have a “minimum threshold” a candidate must hit before a single delegate is won.

The minimum threshold to obtain delegates varies between 15 percent and 20 percent. That minimum threshold should have a Darwinian effect on lower-tier candidates in these states. Fail to reach the threshold, and you receive no delegates.

That’s good news for the two candidates who consistently exceed 15 percent in the most recent polls in these states: Donald Trump in every state, Ted Cruz in almost every state. It’s bad news for a crashing Ben Carson and every other candidate who has yet to reach 15 percent in any state poll.

Trump, who leads nationally in the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls over Cruz by a 35 percent to 19 percent margin, also fares well in the seven March 1 southern states, though almost all such polls are very dated.

Current polls show Cruz with a slight lead over Trump in Iowa, with Trump leading the field in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

A total of 471 delegates (19 percent of all GOP convention delegates) will be up for grabs in the seven southern states which hold primaries on March 1. Four of these seven southern states have a 20 percent minimum threshold for proportional allocation of delegates:

Alabama primary (50 delegates) — 20 percent delegate allocation threshold
Arkansas primary(40 delegates) –15 percent delegate allocation threshold
Georgia primary (76 delegates) -20 percent delegate allocation threshold
Oklahoma primary (43 delegates) – 15 percent delegate allocation threshold
Tennessee primary (58 delegates) 20 percent delegate allocation threshold
Texas primary (155 delegates) -20 percent delegate allocation threshold
Virginia (49 delegates) – no threshold

Some 124 delegates (5 percent of total GOP delegates) will also be contested on March 1 in four states outside the south. Two of those states are caucus states (Alaska and Minnesota), two are primary states, (Massachusetts and Vermont):

Alaska caucus (28 delegates)
Massachusetts primary (42 delegates) 5 percent delegate allocation threshold
Minnesota caucus (38 delegates)
Vermont primary (16 delegates) 15 percent delegate allocation threshold

Pundits are looking at the seven southern states where primaries will be held March 1 –Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — as if they’re a single event, since as “southern” states they presumably have similar demographic and political characteristics.

While there is more commonality among these seven than say, between any one of them and a midwestern state such as Ohio or a blue state such as New York or California, it would be a mistake to look at March 1 as a single event.

Instead, it is seven distinct battles in different states, each with a unique political and social culture.

Even the tag “SEC primary” is misleading. SEC stands for the Southeastern Conference, the best football conference in the country, which produced national champions in recent years from Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Florida.

One of the seven states – Virginia- has no schools in the SEC (Virgina and Virginia Tech are ACC schools). Unlike the other five states, which are solidly “red states,” Virginia is a “purple” state that increasingly leans blue. Barack Obama narrowly took Virginia in 2008 and 2012, and in 2013 Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe, a far left Democrat, won a hard-fought governor’s race over conservative Ken Cuccinelli.

Demographically, much of Virginia has more in common with the Middle Atlantic States of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania than the South. Political power in the state is increasingly dominated by the affluent suburbs around Washington, D.C., populated by federal government bureaucrats and “Beltway Bandits” who get rich off federal government contracts. Northern Virginia — called “NoVA” — is its own culture within the state. Traditional Virginia southern culture is limited to the southwest, southeast, and areas around Richmond.

Another of the seven states – Texas – is only recently an SEC state, and barely that. Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2011, before that, it was a Big Twelve school, like all the other major Texas schools — University of Texas, Baylor, Texas Christian University, and Texas Tech.

The seventh southern state, Oklahoma, is Big Twelve all the way, home to the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

While one website, www.secprimary.com, has been offering candidate “power rankings” for the six southern states (excluding Oklahoma) collectively over the past six months, a more helpful analysis looks separately at each of these seven southern states.

The most recent “SEC Primary” power rankings, completed December 1, rank the top 5 GOP contenders in six southern states with primaries on March 1 (they exclude Oklahoma) as follows:

1 | Ted Cruz
As Huckabee trails off in the South, Ted Cruz is absorbing his supporters. The Tea-Party darling is getting blasted by establishment Republicans and is losing out on every DC endorsement…which seems to be improving his poll numbers.

2 | Donald Trump
Did muslims cheer? Did he make fun of a disabled reporter? Did he have 10,000 people at his rally? Did he meet Vladimir Putin in a green room? Do his supporters care?

3 | Marco Rubio
Rubio is beginning to ramp up operations in the South as his Tennessee team was announced just yesterday, and he’ll visit Alabama for the first time this cycle today. Foreign policy is in his wheel house and he’s been front and center for the past few weeks. Rubio’s hawkishness will continue to play well in the SEC.

4 | Ben Carson
The attacks on Paris have brought foreign policy to the forefront. Unfortunately, Ben Carson is not equipped to handle these foreign policy questions…at least in the eyes of voters. He seems to have support from random Republicans, but he doesn’t have a specific Southern voter demographic that we can pinpoint. Currently, Carson is still a threat to win SEC delegates. We’ll see if he can continue to beef up on his foreign policy, and if his trip to Jordan gives him more perspective and a stronger narrative.

5 | Jeb Bush
Bush has been solid over the past few weeks, but hasn’t done anything to make a move in the polls. Jeb cancelled his visit to the Alabama-LSU game, but showed up for the Egg Bowl over the weekend in Mississippi. The bad news for Jeb is that in a state like Alabama he didn’t even fill his delegate slate, but is that due to organization or support?

Here’s are our own state by state breakdown of the seven southern states with GOP primaries on March 1, and who is likely to exceed the minimum threshold in that state to receive any delegates.

There is little reliable polling in any of these states more recent than November, when Ben Carson began his nationwide plunge in the polls.

While events over the next two months, particularly the outcomes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, as well as unforeseen international events, could well completely change the current picture between now and March 1, here’s a current assessment of where each candidate stands in these seven critical southern states which will hold primaries that day.

Tennessee (58 delegates)

A Vanderbilt University Poll of 495 registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans taken between November 11 and 23 showed:

Among Tennessee Republican voters, Trump would win a 29 percent plurality, followed by Ben Carson at 25 percent, Ted Cruz 14 percent, Marco Rubio 12 percent, Jeb Bush 6 percent and Carly Fiorina 2 percent, the poll indicates.

In December, local Nashville television station WKRN made reference to a private poll taken sometime in November that had Cruz in the lead, followed closely by Carson and Trump. That poll has never surfaced publicly.

On the ground, the Ted Cruz campaign has the most momentum and the public support of the most Tea Party activists and conservative legislators. The Trump campaign has a campaign structure in the state and some high profile endorsements from state legislators.

Both Trump and Cruz have made several well attended visits to the state.

Carson, while popular, seems to be sliding, and Rubio does not seem to be making much of an effort to appear anywhere in the state.

Both Cruz and Trump are likely to exceed the 20 percent threshold needed to win delegates. Carson or Rubio could potentially pass that threshold, but hopes for both appear to be fading. At present, Cruz is best positioned to win the most votes, with Trump finishing a close second.

Virginia (49 delegates)

Trump has the best field organization in Virginia, followed by Cruz. Trump also has spent more time in the state than has Cruz. No other candidate has much of an operation in the state at present.

The Virginia primary is complicated by a nasty piece of inside baseball, in which the anti-Trump forces have attempted to keep Trump voters from participating in the Republican primary by requiring a party loyalty pledge. Sources tell Breitbart News the directive to maintain this requirement has been delivered to the Republican Party of Virginia by the Republican National Committee, but Breitbart News has not been able to confirm this report.

An effort to eliminate the loyalty pledge has been launched at www.repealthepledge.com.

The most recent polling in Virginia, conducted by the University of Mary Washington between November 4 and November 9, showed Carson in first place with 29 percent, followed by Trump at 24 percent, Rubio at 11 percent, and Cruz at 10 percent.

Virginia is the only state that has no minimum threshold to obtain delegates, so Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson are all well positioned to obtain some delegates.

The battle for the victory appears presently to be between Trump and Cruz, with Trump receiving a slight edge. Cruz is strongest in the area surrounding Liberty University in Lynchburg and in the Hampton Roads area surrounding Regents University. Trump is strongest in the rest of the state.

Texas (155 delegates)

The Real Clear Politics average of polls in Texas for the period covering September 8 to November 8 showed Trump in first place at 23 percent, Cruz in second at 19 percent, and Carson in third at 16 percent.

With native son Cruz gaining momentum nationally, it is likely that momentum will continue in his home state to a good turnout in the March 1 primary. Other than Donald Trump, it seems unlikely that another candidate will exceed the state’s 20 percent threshold to obtain delegates.

Georgia (76 delegates)

The Real Clear Politics average of polls in Georgia for the period covering the period from December 10 to December 16 shows Trump in the lead with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Cruz at 16 percent, Rubio at 11.5 percent, and Ben Carson at 6.5 percent.

Trump will almost certainly exceed the state’s 20 percent threshold to secure delegates, as will a surging Cruz. It is unclear if Rubio or Carson will pass that threshold.

Alabama (50 delegates)

A very old Gravis Poll of GOP primary voters in Alabama, taken from August 29 to September 1, showed Trump in first with 38 percent, followed by Carson at 17 percent.

Arkansas (40 delegates)

A USA Today poll conducted between September 20 and 23 that did not include Donald Trump as a candidate, for some reason, showed favorite son former Governor Mike Huckabee as the front runner with 39 percent of the vote, and no one else in double digits.

Count Huckabee as likely to pass the 15 percent threshold here, as well as Trump and Cruz.

Oklahoma (43 delegates)

The Real Clear Politics average of polls of GOP primary voters in Oklahoma for the period covering October 10 to November 15 shows Trump in the lead at 23 percent, followed by Carson at 21.5 percent, Rubio at 12.5 percent, and Cruz at 12.5 percent.

Trump, Carson, Rubio, and Cruz could all exceed the state’s 15 percent delegate allocation threshold. As Ben Carson continues to slide in the polls nationally, however, his prospects in Oklahoma are likely diminished as well.

After the electoral results from March 1 are known, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz appear to have a strong chance of picking up a number of delegates. None of the other candidates appear poised, at present, to pick up a substantial number of delegates, thanks to the minimum threshold requirements.

Two weeks later, on March 15, the results of the winner-take-all primaries in Florida, Ohio, and Illinois may well be enough to determine which one of these two candidates have the best chance of winning the GOP nomination.


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