If you had told me twelve, six, or even three months ago that with only three weeks left until the Iowa caucuses Donald Trump would be leading the Republican pack for the nomination, I would have laughed in your face (and then cried in the fetal position while holding my dogs and telling them that it will be ok).
But lo and behold, that scenario has played out. In the RealClearPolitics poll of polls, Trump holds a commanding 13.3% lead over his nearest rival (Sen. Ted Cruz) nationally. Furthermore, Trump is fairing well in the early states. In New Hampshire, the Donald is beating a divided establishment field by 16%+; in South Carolina, he leads Cruz by double digits; and even in Iowa, Trump is only four points behind the leader, Ted Cruz.
If he were any other candidate in any other year, his case for the nomination would be open and shut. Politicos such as myself wouldn’t be forecasting his eventual downfall. But it isn’t just any other year, so how does Donald Trump win?
Beginning with the first voting state, Donald Trump needs to make sure that those who say they are supporting him in the polls actually come out to vote. If Trump loses by a larger than expected margin (which currently would be about 4-8%), he will have to give a good reason why he himself shouldn’t be branded a “loser”. This is important, because one of Trump’s strengths is his ability to project confidence in his winning ability and his perceived frontrunner status. If that is challenged, Trump will go into New Hampshire wounded, and he likely won’t perform as well as his current standing would project.
To be clear, Trump doesn’t need to win Iowa. There is already a perception in the political world that Iowa is Cruz’s to lose. Winning Iowa would certainly cement Trump’s lead in other states, but losing by a few points to the perceived frontrunner would not necessarily harm him.
Additionally, Donald Trump needs to ensure that an establishment candidate such as Marco Rubio does not break out and do unexpectedly well. If Rubio comes close to matching Trump’s support in the state, he will be the story going into New Hampshire. This is why Rubio is now making a big play for Iowa.
Next up: New Hampshire. Currently, there are four establishment candidates (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich) vying for a ticket out of The Granite State, and because they all are pulling roughly equal support in the polls, none of them are able to break out to seriously challenge Trump.
Donald Trump has proven very effective at diminishing a candidate by attacking them when he needs to, so he needs to make sure that he attacks the “most likely” establishment the hardest. New Hampshire is a state in which Trump needs to win. He can do this by turning out his supporters as well as doing moderately well in Iowa.
Following New Hampshire are both South Carolina and Nevada. First and foremost, for Trump to continue winning states, candidates who are not winning need to stay in the race. For example, should Kasich and Christie not do well in New Hampshire, they could get out of the race, and their supporters would then flock to another candidate who is a close ideological fit, such as Bush and Rubio. Donald Trump needs to hope those candidates stay in the race a little longer in order for those campaigns to not gain momentum. As I mentioned above, Trump is doing well in South Carolina and Nevada, so he just needs to continue winning, even if it is only with about 30-35% of the vote.
Beyond the early voting states, Donald Trump begins to have a problem. While he would still be the perceived frontrunner for the nomination, candidates will begin dropping out and consolidating behind either Cruz or a more establishment candidate. At this point, Trump will need to begin spending a lot of money to hit Ted Cruz as well as the establishment candidate.
Because most states have a proportional delegate allocation system, he will need to begin winning states with 50% of the vote. Doing so will mean he wins all the delegates (save for one delegate each for a candidate who can cross a certain threshold.
However, chances are that Donald Trump will not be able to win a majority in most states. Therefore, the nomination will go all the way to the Republican convention in July. Because the bulk of the GOP establishment will not be inclined to give Trump their support, he will need to use the most important leverage he still has in order to persuade them to do so: a third party run.
Donald Trump is a billionaire and has a strong a devoted following within the Republican Party. He could easily run (or threaten to run) as a third party candidate, which would undoubtedly end in disaster for the Republican Party in November. The Republican establishment will deem it necessary to nominate him, despite their deep reservations, in order to keep the party united against the eventual Democratic nominee and win back the White House.