Editor’s Note: This post was written by Nicholas Pozzi, Samantha Coons, Keshawn Langhorn, and JaiCe Stinton.
By most measures, this nomination cycle has been considerably more competitive on the Republican side than it has been in most recent election years. In this post, we discuss the competitiveness of this year’s race for the Republican nomination using a measure commonly applied to competitive industrial markets.
Early in the election cycle, numerous candidates expressed their intent to run for office because they could focus on one or two states in an attempt to gain momentum once the voting actually began. Party stakeholders were unable to support one candidate during the invisible primary, which led to what the public believes as a “competitive” race. However, we believe that even with all of these candidates, the race is not as open as the public believes because it has only been competitive among a few candidates. To show this, we take the advice of political scientist Wayne Steger and use the Hirschman-Herfindahl Index (HHI) to “assess the competitiveness of elections in which there are multiple candidates.” This metric assesses the competitiveness of the race in order to prove that even with an array of choices, only a few are capable of winning. Our data consists of the vote totals from the Iowa caucus to the present (updated through the April 26 races) and media coverage from the end of January through April 27. Reported below are the normalized HHI score (calculated according to the formula provided here as the computation for “H*”) and the number of viable candidates (calculated as 1/H in the prior link).
Calculated based on:,HHI,# Viable Candidates
Popular Vote Share,0.20,3.69
People say this field was full of qualified candidates. For these career politicians or business leaders it is not that difficult to raise money to travel around Iowa. The threshold for being a competitive race – according to Steger – is a normalized HHI under .25. Thus, the current score (based on vote shares) of 0.20 tells us that this race is moderately competitive, putting it in line with the 1980 and 2008 nomination battles for both parties, but slightly less competitive than races in 1972 (Democrats), 1976 (both parties), 1984 and 1988 (Democrats), and 2012 (Republicans). For an open seat election year, where numerous candidates vie for the party’s nomination, this race is about as competitive as recent open seat elections. This vote total also tells us that there were only about four candidates who were viable since voting began in Iowa. This would mean the highest vote getters in Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich were the only candidates who had a shot at winning the nomination. According to the HHI, this cycle is competitive as it provides more than one candidate who is deemed viable.
We also examined the competitiveness of the Republican race by looking at each candidate’s share of media coverage on the national networks over the 90 day period from January 27 through April 27. Based on these results, the media coverage of candidates was not really competitive, with the HHI of 0.34 being above the 0.25 maximum threshold for competitiveness. Of the 17 total candidates who ever entered the field, there were only slightly more than two viable candidates according to media coverage (though this is certainly not the best way to measure electoral competition). With over 60 percent of the news coverage being about Trump, this left little room for other candidates. Cruz and Rubio – with the second and third most news stories – could also be considered competitive. Based on both the popular vote and delegate totals, the HHI results accurately reflect how many candidates actually have a shot at winning the nomination.
According to political science research, candidates can be divided into two camps based on their competitiveness: long shots and big shots. To big shots, money matters the most, followed by competitive distance, which is a candidate’s support from voters in relation to the support of the front-runner. Long shots, on the other hand, rely on press coverage to gain voter support. Carly Fiorina is an example of a long shot whose success banked on media coverage. Long-shot candidates had little chance in this cycle because Donald Trump dominated the media from early on, not allowing any other candidate to get the coverage they needed to garner support. This resulted in many long-shot candidates dropping out early on. Big-shot candidates were next to go, while they were able to hang on longer because they had the financial means to do so, it never translated into enough support to beat the main front-runners. Jeb! is a perfect example of a big-shot candidate, as he was able to raise over $150 million (for his campaign and the Super PAC supporting him), yet didn’t win a single state. Whether a candidate was a long shot or a big shot, s/he did not have a leg to stand on this cycle because Donald Trump overshadowed everyone.
We believe that the difference in viability between media coverage and the popular vote is due to Donald Trump’s marketing strategy. Comparing the viability results of vote totals and media coverage, Trump was able to knock out one candidate by dominating the airwaves. We see a correlation between Donald Trump’s outlandish remarks and Saturday Night Live skit to increased media coverage. Other candidates were unable to receive the same amount of free or paid media, due either to less money or less controversial positions. This math has offered us the ability to put numbers to an election that has been seen as a circus, but in reality has been a relatively competitive race. While candidates may say outlandish things and the media have focused intently on the circus, the numbers don’t lie – this cycle is comparable to other competitive races in the past.