Soon we’ll have a winner in the first official contest of the 2016 election. For the Republicans, it’s likely to be Donald Trump, though it could be Sen. Ted Cruz. There is a small chance it will be Sen. Marco Rubio, the supposed “establishment” candidate. But it probably won’t be. And don’t worry: Losing—repeatedly and for a long time—is all part of Rubio’s master plan.

Marco Rubio doesn’t expect to win Iowa. He doesn’t expect to win New Hampshire, either. He doesn’t really expect to win South Carolina. Nevada? Eh, maybe. He’s not sweating it. The Rubio strategy, as detailed in various outlets over these last few months, and dissected by Daniel Larison here, is mainly to hang around, until he starts winning.

Yes, in the Republican contest, a loss in Iowa does not actually mean much, especially recently. There’s a reason John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie will all be in New Hampshire tonight.

But in order to win elections, you actually have to win some elections.

Here’s the schedule for the first few contests:

  • Today: Iowa.
  • February 9: New Hampshire.
  • February 20: South Carolina.
  • February 23: Nevada.
  • March 1: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

So Rubio’s out of the first three, and he probably won’t do that well with that big bunch of Southern states voting on March 1. By that point, we’ll be talking about a lot of actual delegates getting awarded to candidates who actually win things. Philip Diehl, writing at The Atlantic, argues pretty persuasively that the calendar and delegate allocation will benefit Cruz and Trump this year, assuming their current poll numbers are at least mostly representative of their levels of support in the early states. (Which is, admittedly, a big assumption.)

In the [March 1] SEC Primary, delegates will be chosen in six winners-take-most Southern states, as well as in the conservative states of Alaska, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming. And in the week following the SEC Primary, another six conservative states—Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Idaho, and Mississippi—will hold primaries, three of which have high qualifying thresholds that the insiders will almost undoubtedly all struggle to meet.

Establishment candidates still standing on March 14 will likely be on the ropes. On March 15, the primary schedule shifts to more moderate states that are friendlier to the insiders. But by then, almost half of the national convention delegates, and more than 90 percent of the delegates required to nominate, will have already been chosen.

Diehl’s analysis isn’t shared by everyone. FiveThirtyEight says the calendar benefits Cruz and Trump early, but that Rubio will have a strong advantage in later, bigger, winner-take-all contests, giving him a valid path to the nomination even if he performs poorly in early states. I’m sure that’s exactly what Rubio is telling his donors, too.

But that calculation relies on a really strange sort of narrative, in which a candidate loses and loses and loses—over and over again, for an entire month’s worth of contests—and then, suddenly, starts not-losing. It’s certainly possible! But traditionally, in the primaries, voters coalesce around candidates who actually win at least some of those early, hugely well-publicized elections. That’s how you signal that you’re “electable,” and not, say, Rudy Giuliani—whose 2008 primary strategy, coincidentally, was to lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and then eventually start winning.

Here’s Diehl, again:

Can Rubio or Bush mount a rally in the moderate states that vote on and after March 15? Probably not. The GOP gives “bonus delegates” to deep-red states—those with GOP governors, senators, and state legislative majorities. But states where Rubio and Bush might have an advantage are blue and purple states like California, New York, and Illinois. And these states receive a disproportionally small number of delegates compared with their populations. For example, the GOP gives deep-red Alaska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, with a combined population of 5.2 million, a total of 99 delegates. Deep-blue New York, on the other hand, with a population of 19.4 million, has just 95 delegates.

This is all still speculative, of course, and based on unreliable, early-state polls and mostly meaningless pundit “buzz.” Cruz could definitely wither, especially if he loses tonight and has a poor showing in New Hampshire. But Politico reports today that he has somehow ended up with a campaign war chest built for the long haul:

Marco Rubio has emerged as the favorite of elite GOP donors, but the White House hopeful who scares them most ― Ted Cruz ― is in the best financial shape of any candidate in the Republican field headed into a potentially protracted battle for the nomination, according to a POLITICO analysis.

The analysis found that Cruz and his allied super PACs had about $44 million in the bank as the caucuses begins in Iowa, and had built the most sustainable campaign infrastructure among GOP candidates.

So, uh, good luck tonight, Marco.

Photo: Getty