Here’s how to follow 2016’s winding road to the White House

Lorraine Joseph, right, a student nurse at Broward College, makes a sign as Jenny Ellis, left, looks on, in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Lorraine Joseph, right, a student nurse at Broward College, makes a sign as Jenny Ellis, left, looks on, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. AP

No sense being confident predicting how the presidential race will unfold in 2016. After all, not a lot has been predictable so far.

The big early dates this year come during February, as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina voters winnow the fields, and in mid-March, when the inevitability factor becomes apparent.

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Then again, nothing has been inevitable in this campaign. Did anybody forecast Donald Trump as the Republican front-runner as the election year begins? Or that Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger would be Bernie Sanders, a maverick independent senator?

Was Jeb Bush, with his family’s political network and a huge campaign treasury, expected to be mired in single digits? Wouldn’t Florida’s Marco Rubio and Ohio’s John Kasich, neither of whom has shown much momentum, make a hard-to-beat team?

This much can be said as 2016 dawns: Certain dates do hold the promise of providing pivotal moments. Here’s our list of how to follow the year’s political pandemonium:

JANUARY: Republicans hold their first debate of the year on Jan. 14, and the main event could feature as few as six candidates. Democrats follow three days later. Voters are now starting to make up their minds, and impressions made a few weeks before they vote matter. That means huge potential for make-or-break moments.

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie would qualify for the main stage at the Jan. 14 debate, if end-of-year poll numbers remain intact.

FEBRUARY, in three acts:

1. Iowa’s caucuses, Feb. 1: Yes, the state’s Republican race is not a true reflection of the national party since there’s a heavy Christian right vote. And the last two winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, faded fast. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton has a big lead, so no drama there.

What counts here is (a) any surprise and (b) the potential to winnow the field. Ambitions are born and are dashed in this caucus. When Barack Obama beat Clinton in Iowa eight years ago (she finished third), it signaled he was formidable. Ditto Jimmy Carter, thanks to a strong showing in 1976, and George H.W. Bush when he stunned Ronald Reagan four years later.

Iowa is also last call for a lot of candidates, and Feb. 2 is likely to be shrinkage day, when those who didn’t reach 5 percent give up.

Republican Michele Bachmann dropped out of the race after a dismal showing in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. In 2008, Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd left the race after Iowa.

2. New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9: The state’s voters cast the year’s first secret ballots and the candidates play the expectations game. Sanders is from Vermont, the state next door, so any stumble will hurt. Among GOPers, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fits the center-right, give-’em-hell type voters like.

New Hampshire is legendary for putting underdogs in the spotlight, and a good showing by Bush, former business executive Carly Fiorina or someone else lagging in the polls could vault them into the top tier overnight.

3. South Carolina, the unpredictable state: Republicans vote Feb. 20, Democrats a week later. Non-Southern candidates want to do well here to show they have true national appeal.

That worked for Bush, father and son; John McCain; and Obama. A big win by Trump or Clinton would give them important momentum.

MARCH 1: Big day No. 1: Thirteen states, many in the South, as well as Democrats Abroad and Democrats in American Samoa vote.

Two new numbers matter: Money, because one-on-one campaigning won’t work when one-fourth of the states are voting. The other large number: Delegates to the nominating conventions, as the first big haul is available this day. Losers will have one more big chance. They’ll say the day’s results are misleading since most of the states voting lean heavily conservative.

MARCH 8 and 15: The also-rans will aim heavily at these Tuesdays, as the race moves to more diverse states. Republican rules also change. As of mid-March, states can use a winner-take-all system for delegates, a change designed to crown a nominee quicker. Michigan goes first, on March 8, and will offer clues to what’s on tap a week later in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina. If clear front-runners emerge March 15, the races could be effectively over.

If the race is down to three or four candidates heading into the March 1 contests, then March 15 and April 26 are other dates to watch.

Josh Putnam, who runs the Frontloading HQ blog

APRIL: Party leaders would love to see a virtual nominee by mid-March, and they usually get their wish. If the race becomes a free-for-all, a new phase begins this month, centered in more moderate states. Wisconsin is up first on April 5, then New York on April 19 and five Northeastern states, notably Pennsylvania, a week later.

JUNE: Modern nominating fights rarely last this long. If these get this far, the final delegate bonanza is available June 7, with six states, including California and New Jersey, voting. California alone offers 172 Republican delegates, or about 14 percent of the total needed to nominate. Also worth watching: If Trump loses the GOP nomination, will he run as an independent? The speculation will be deafening.

JULY: Republicans go first, convening July 18 for four days in Cleveland. Should no one enter the convention with the 1,236 delegates (out of 2,470) needed to win, anything goes. The last time a convention took more than one ballot to pick a nominee was 1952. The last time there was even a dollop of suspense about the eventual nominee at a convention was in 1976.

Democrats meet a week later, from July 25-28. With only three major candidates, no one expects a brokered convention. The drama here will involve who winds up as the vice presidential running mate; at the moment, there are few logical choices.

Republicans will hold their convention in Cleveland. Democrats will meet in Philadelphia.

SEPTEMBER: Labor Day is regarded as the unofficial kickoff of the general election campaign. Democrats usually pair with labor unions for events. Republicans tend to visit swing states. The big day is Sept. 26, when the candidates are scheduled to meet at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, for their first debate.

OCTOBER: Two things to watch: The quadrennial speculation over an “October surprise,” some unforeseen event, either planned or spontaneous, that rocks the race. Likely to be a bigger deal are three more debates: presidential candidates Oct. 9 in St. Louis and 19 in Las Vegas, and a vice presidential showdown in Farmville, Va., on Oct. 4.

NOVEMBER: Nov. 8 is the big day; 270 electoral votes are needed to crown a winner. In 1980 the result was clear by 8 p.m. EST. In 2000, the result wasn’t known until a month later. If the 2015 pattern holds, don’t even try to predict who will win, let alone when.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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