STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So many candidates ran for president this year that some people joke there could be a playoff system, as in sports.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
You know, Jeb Bush would play Marco Rubio in the Florida regional. Ted Cruz might have faced Rick Perry in the Texas regional.
INSKEEP: Governors could face governors. Senators could face Senators. Donald Trump could play Carly Fiorina in the CEO bracket. There are many ways you could divide this up.
MONTAGNE: That is not, however, how the voting works in real life (laughter). Everybody in each party is on the ballot against everybody else.
INSKEEP: Yet as the first primaries in caucuses approach, there really are informal playoff brackets, especially on the crowded Republican side. NPR Washington editor correspondent and sports fan Ron Elving is here. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What are the playoff brackets?
ELVING: You know, it's rather inapt analogy in the sense that there are 12 teams - there will be 12 teams eventually - in the NFL playoffs. And that's just about the number of Republicans you're going to have running in Iowa and New Hampshire...
ELVING: ...Just about an even dozen. And they're not quite the same brackets that you were just laying out there in humor, but they have emerged as two divisions, if you will. Let's call them the outsiders and the insiders.
INSKEEP: Outsiders and insiders. I guess Donald Trump is one of the outsiders?
ELVING: Oh, yes. He would be number one in that category. But also Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Sen. Rand Paul. And let's also include here Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, because he positions himself as an outsider even in the Senate, even while he's there. And he touts himself in his ads as the man Washington loves to hate.
INSKEEP: Doesn't everybody want to be an outsider?
ELVING: Yes, that's pretty much the style this year in particular. And people have run against Washington for a very long time. But there are people who really can't avoid the label of being insiders - Jeb Bush, for example, the governors John Kasich, Chris Christie, to some extent. And the emerging leader now in the bracket of insiders is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. He may not like life in the Senate very much, but his appeal is much more to party officials in stalwarts than to, say, the most hard-line ideological conservatives.
INSKEEP: OK, so he becomes an insider candidate in that insider bracket, or the establishment bracket, I guess, if we want to use the jargon that people use to talk about the Republican establishment.
ELVING: That's right. And whether he wants to or not and - you know, it's actually a good place for him to be at this moment because he's getting much more traction in that bracket than anyone else. The prediction markets, where people actually bet money on elections, they've actually got Marco Rubio up there with a better shot at the whole nomination than anyone else in the Republican Party, including Donald Trump. And he has more endorsements from officials than anyone other than Jeb Bush. And the tougher competition is clearly in the other bracket among the outsiders.
INSKEEP: OK, so let's talk about how you think about these brackets. You mentioned the NFL playoffs. If I'm following the Indianapolis Colts - or whoever I'm following - I'm thinking about my team. I'm thinking about their bracket and the games that they have ahead. But I'm also thinking about the other bracket and hoping that the toughest competition over there gets wiped out. Do people think about the political competition that way?
ELVING: Absolutely. They are always thinking about where they are in the field and managing their position in the field. And you do want to finish first among your bracket in Iowa or in New Hampshire. But then you want to think about which of the outsiders you want to see win or lose there. Are you with Trump or are you with Cruz? Would it be tougher for, say, Marco Rubio to deal with Donald Trump in the states that come after? Or would it be tougher for him to deal with his fellow senator, Ted Cruz?
INSKEEP: OK. So let's suppose you're trying to think about this as Marco Rubio, the guy that you said that - according to the betting markets anyway - is in the top of the insider bracket. There is the question of when he actually starts winning a caucus or a primary breaking out and being first somewhere.
ELVING: That's right. His best shot appears to be the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 23 or in some of the southern states voting in early March. And the big casino for him, of course, is his home state of Florida on March 15. But, you know, someone needs to emerge from that insider bracket. And the most important thing for Rubio right now is winning in that bracket. And it probably serves his cause though, looking over at the other bracket, to see a different person winning in each state in February and as many different winners in the very early events in March so that he can stand tall or if he can win his home state in Florida on March 15.
INSKEEP: OK, one perspective on the playoffs that are about to begin. Ron, thanks very much. Always a pleasure talking with you.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving.
Now of course immigration politics could be front and center in 2016. They have played a huge role in the debates so far. And that's from the Supreme Court to the campaign trail. NPR's Richard Gonzales takes a look later today at immigration politics on All Things Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.