With the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire “first in the nation” primary just days away, the average viewer and reader might think that the Republican and Democratic nominations are on the line. In reality, the nominations for both the Democratic and Republican Parties are just getting started.

Certainly, winning early states is important. Most of all, the unearned media (i.e., media candidates do not have to pay for) is enormous. And, there is always some of the bandwagon effect of fence-sitters deciding to jump “off the fence” before it is too late. Yet, in reality, none of the early states, including South Carolina and Nevada which follow Iowa and New Hampshire, are or have been dispositive in deciding who either party’s nominee will be.

Of course, if a candidate can sweep all four of the “carve-out” states, then a strong case can be made that the candidate is well on the way toward wrapping up the nomination. For a lot or reasons, that rarely happens. This is especially true in 2016.

For example, in the Republican nomination contests, only 133 delegates will be decided in the four February primaries. That is just 6 percent of the delegates and those 133 delegates will be allocated proportionately – meaning that no one candidate, including the candidate receiving the most votes, will receive a majority of any one state.

Compare that to March when 1,435 delegates will be decided comprising 58 percent of the delegates. On the first day of March alone, 12 states with some of the largest delegations will hold their primaries and caucuses. Georgia and Texas are among these. By the end of March, 64 percent (almost two-thirds) of the Republican delegates will have been decided.

So, what is really going on at this stage of the process? As even a casual observer can tell, the dynamics of the Republican and Democratic nominations are very different. But, both signal a potentially long trek ahead for the 2016 candidates for president of the United States.

Among the Republicans, it is only fitting that the Iowa and New Hampshire contests follow the NFC and AFC championship games to determine the teams in Super Bowl 50. Really, among Republicans, there are two contests ongoing to determine the eventual GOP nominee.

While every GOP candidate insists that he or she is an “anti-establishment” candidate, the GOP race is really between two groups of candidates regardless of how they describe themselves. As a result, each candidate is competing to win their bracket of the candidates heading into March, when, midway through the month, states go from proportional delegate allocations to winner-take-all.

For this reason businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Senator Rick Santorum, Senator Rand Paul, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina all appear to be competing for the same voters. In the other bracket, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appear to be competing for the same group of voters.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been a bit of an anomaly starting in the first group, but being viewed by voters in the second group as the most acceptable of the lot. As a result, some believe he has been the recipient of the most attack advertisements – taking fire from both camps.

And so, it should surprise no one to see Donald Trump and Senator Cruz hammer away at each other since they see a path to the nomination that starts with winning the “outsider” bracket of the nomination. Meanwhile, Governors Bush, Kasich, and Christie understand that while they need not win in the early states, they must at least win among their group. It is why voters in the March 1 states already see so many advertisements from candidates in this latter group.

The assumption is that, in the end, the Republican race will come down to the two candidates who win each of their respective brackets. In the 2008 and 2012 GOP contests, candidates in the first group lingered long enough to permit a nominee in the second group to win the nomination – Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. That could happen again.

But no one should kid themselves about the impact of winning either or both Iowa and New Hampshire. It is big, but it is not the game.

On the Democratic side, something very different is happening. Although the mainstream media makes much of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ surge in the early states, the ultimate contest is really not so much about him. Undoubtedly, New Hampshire, Vermont’s neighboring state, is an exception where Senator Sanders’ candidacy benefits from significant personal support.

But, the bigger contest for the Democrats is a referendum on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Outside of New Hampshire, votes for Senator Sanders are more accurately described as “votes not for Secretary Clinton.” Many Democratic voters continue to worry about the lingering legal issues and her ultimate electability because of them.

Of course, there is no shortage of Democratic nominee wannabes who are content to sit on the sidelines to see how it all shakes out. And so, her campaign remains shaky as the early states approach with many in her own party watching to see if she stumbles and falls.

The bottom line is that none of that will be decided before March 1. The playoffs do not start until then.

Randy Evans is an attorney and columnist.



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