[Flag of the United States]And then there was one. After starting the presidential election cycle with seventeen major candidates, the Republican party has narrowed that list to just one: Donald Trump.

If the goal is to retake the presidency, is Trump the best decision?

[donald trump]

Republican contender, Donald Trump

On March 23, 2015, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination (transcript). He was the first of seventeen — a record field for a major party in the United States. For the record, in terms of candidate announcement, the seventeen were Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Jim Gilmore.

There were so many that the first debate was split into two, with the top ten in the prime time debate, and the remaining in the under-card debate. (And this, in turn, led to some controversy in terms of how the top ten were selected; see Fox and Republicans and FOX News Made its Decision.)

As time passed, two things happened. First, the Republican field winnowed. Second, polling built up data. This data allowed us to examine head-to-head match-ups to get an idea of which candidates will do best against each other. At the beginning of March, The Conversation approached us to analyze the polls to get a better feel for the possible general election contests (see: Hard Data). At that point, we estimated that a Cruz-Clinton race would give the race to Cruz 50.6 to 49.4% (although within the margin of error); a Trump-Clinton race would give the race to Clinton 46.9 to 53.1% (outside the margin of error).

And the contest continued through several more caucuses and primaries. After Super Tuesday (March 1, 2016), Cruz won Kansas, Maine, Idaho, Wisconsin, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming (in chronological order). However, when it appeared he was gaining momentum, Trump came back with sweeps.

Finally, the electoral math was against him even being able to force a contested convention. As a result, Ted Cruz, bowed out this morning after a poor showing in Indiana. While there are a large number of evangelicals in Indiana — Cruz's apparent base — there are also a lot of disaffected blue collar voters — Trump's apparent base. Trump beat Cruz 53.3% to 36.7%. Cruz dropped out:

Source: Reuters / Slate

The Estimates

And so, it appears as though the general election contest is between Trump and Clinton. How does this look for Republicans eager to reclaim the White House? Not good.

In early March, a Cruz-Clinton race resulted in a Cruz presidency... although it was very close. A Trump-Clinton presidency was a Democratic win.

Here are the latest maps. Note that Clinton wins both contests now. However, also note that Trump is catching up to Clinton.

Cruz vs. Clinton

[cruz vs. clinton]

Map of a hypothetical Cruz vs. Clinton general election, May 4, 2016.

Along the bottom is the national support for the candidates. Back in early March, Cruz held a slight advantage over Clinton. That has since disappeared, to be replaced with stronger wins for Clinton. If this map holds until November, Cruz would not win, even with taking all toss-up and lean-Democrat states. Clinton takes Ohio and Florida, which essentially gives her the election and 293 electoral votes (270 wins the presidency).

Trump vs. Clinton

[trump vs. clinton]

Map of a Trump vs. Clinton election, May 4, 2016.

Along the bottom is the national support for the candidates in this match-up. Note that Trump led Clinton briefly in January. However, where Cruz has lost ground against Clinton, Trump is narrowing the gap. Were the election held today, Trump would still lose in a landslide to Clinton. However, the election is not held today, and the momentum looks favorable for Trump.

Trump vs. Sanders

While there is no realistic way for Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, it is interesting to see how he would perform against Trump.

[trump vs. sanders]

Map of a hypothetical Trump vs. Sanders election, May 4, 2016.

Clinton wins against Trump, but Sanders does more so. What is it about the message of Sanders that makes him especially strong against Trump? Economically, the messages are very similar. Both candidates appeal to the workers who continue to struggle since the economy fell in 2008. The difference is mainly in terms of style and who gets demonized. Sanders is well liked and trusted; Trump has the highest proportion of the voters who view him unfavorably. Sanders demonizes the wealthy; Trump, the illegal immigrants.

Conclusion

The Presidential Election is still six months away — several lifetimes in politics and elections. However, the choice of Trump to go against Clinton may not have been as poor a choice as many think. Cruz was losing ground to Clinton, while Trump is gaining it. The electoral map still seems stacked against Trump and the Republicans, but there may still be hope if the Republican Party unites around Trump.

Ultimately, the winner of this election may be President Barack Obama. Since the start of this election cycle, the proportion of Americans who approve of the job he has done has grown from the mid 40s to the low 50s. It may turn out that Obama will have much higher positives when leaving office than did President George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating of just 32%.