With three victories now under his belt after the first four states of the Republican presidential nomination season, Donald Trump has been heralded by the mainstream media as the inevitable Republican presidential nominee. Various commentators have proclaimed that the GOP race is “over” and that Trump has a “hammerlock on the GOP nomination,” while news coverage from several quarters has suggested that party elites are “accepting the idea of a Donald Trump nomination.”
But before we are swept away by the news media drama queens, let’s center ourselves in the facts. It is undeniable that Mr. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to win primaries and caucuses in a divided Republican field. His narrow yet deep base of support has turned out for him readily and consistently in the past three primary states. In high-turnout primaries and low-turnout caucuses alike, Trump supporters have arrived en masse and pushed him to a strong finish.
Yet as strong as Mr. Trump may seem, his campaign still bears the burden of several fundamental weaknesses. First, there are still over two weeks until any winner-take-all state votes. Until March 15th, the day on which Florida and Ohio hold their winner-take-all primary elections, every single state awards its delegates proportionally. This feature of the primary process is designed to ensure that no candidate can wrap up the nomination before the winner-take-all phase of the nomination process begins.1 Thus, even if Mr. Trump were to win every state before March 15th with about 35 percent of the vote, he would likely not take home a majority of the delegates from these states. In Tuesday’s Nevada caucus, for example, where the New York businessman racked up an impressive 45 percent of the primary vote, he failed to collect a majority of the delegates, earning only fourteen of the 30 delegates on the table.
State-by-state delegate allocation rules also leave Mr. Trump vulnerable. Most of the states prior to March 15th impose qualifying thresholds on the awarding of delegates. A candidate must exceed these thresholds, which are set anywhere from five percent (Massachusetts) to 20 percent (Texas, Tennessee, and Idaho), in order to collect any delegates from the state or from the congressional districts within each state. Thus, the qualifying thresholds function as a ceiling which locks bottom-tier candidates out of most of the 1,130 delegates awarded before the winner-take-all states.
This side effect of the qualifying thresholds might be deadly to Ben Carson and John Kasich. Armed with only a handful of delegates going into March 15th, Kasich and Carson will have the unenviable task of convincing voters that they have a better chance of winning the primary nomination than Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, who will all be delegate-rich in comparison. And without victories on Super Tuesday, these candidates will have nothing to show for their continued presence in the race. As calls to coalesce behind a single anti-Trump candidate grow to a fever pitch, Kasich and Carson will bear the brunt of these pressures and, in view of their impossibly difficult paths to the nomination, will likely terminate their campaigns.
But if they do not bow out, Trump’s path to the nomination becomes much easier. With Kasich in the race, moderate and somewhat conservative Republican voters will be hopelessly split, leaving Marco Rubio in a fruitless struggle to break through Trump’s firewall and muster the support he needs to win Florida, his home state and the biggest winner-take-all prize of the entire primary calendar. Carson supporters are less integral to the Rubio coalition, but the limited polling data from the past week-and-a-half on second-choice preferences appears to show that Rubio would benefit from his departure as well.
Ted Cruz is another wild card to consider. A poor showing by Cruz on Super Tuesday, particularly in his home state of Texas, would surely doom his campaign, at least mathematically.2 If Cruz recognizes his inevitable doom early enough and suspends his campaign, only Trump and Rubio will share the top tier, a development which all polling so far has indicated would be disastrous for Trump. In one striking example, a North Carolina poll taken several days ago showed nearly three-quarters of Cruz supporters throwing their support behind Marco Rubio in the event of a two-man race between the Florida senator and Mr. Trump.
So what is the perfect picture for Donald Trump as the primary process unfolds over the next few days and weeks? Under the following circumstances, Trump’s chances of obtaining the nomination are best:
- Cruz performs well on Super Tuesday: This may seem counterintuitive, but a strong performance by Cruz will only prolong the inevitability of his defeat or, alternatively, his exit from the race. Cruz lacks the breadth of Marco Rubio’s support and the depth of Donald Trump’s, and his limited appeal with moderates makes a comeback victory after March 15th—even in a two-man race with Mr. Trump—nearly impossible. Even with Trump not in the race, Cruz would be counting on big victories in the South to assure his survival. With Trump in, however, the lifeblood of Cruz’s candidacy—evangelical and very conservative voters—has been reduced to a trickle. A slow death for Cruz’s campaign allows Trump to put away the winner-take-all states and keep an insurgent Rubio at bay. A Cruz departure before March 15th, however, will bolster Marco Rubio’s growing conservative coalition and put Trump in serious danger of suffering a series of crippling losses in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina.
- Kasich stays in through March 15th: Second only to Florida, Ohio is one of the biggest winner-take-all delegate prizes in the GOP primary election and, like its southerly cousin, is home to one of the presidential contenders. However, with the poor showing he will have on Super Tuesday, Ohio Governor John Kasich will have a difficult time maintaining his strong numbers in Ohio against Trump, whose base of support is the most solid in the race. His continued presence therefore makes a Trump victory in Ohio all the more likely. With just about two-thirds of Kasich’s current support, however, the rising Marco Rubio—already with a good number of Super Tuesday delegates under his belt—would tie Trump for first place in Ohio, potentially surpassing him there, and would be better positioned in Illinois and North Carolina, the other big delegate draws on the 15th.
- Rubio fails to win a state: If Rubio cannot win a state in the lead-up to March 15th, the central argument of his candidacy—that the young Florida senator is uniquely positioned to unite the party and defeat Donald Trump—will collapse. Even if Rubio manages to bring together a good number of delegates, being winless going into the Florida and Ohio primaries will make it harder for Rubio to distinguish himself as the anti-Trump candidate and bring together a coalition sufficient to take down Trump on March 15th.
Donald Trump has a decent shot at the nomination. The momentum of this race is in his favor, and with the race as divided as it is now, Trump is well-positioned for Super Tuesday and for the winner-take-all states on March 15th. But two weeks is a political eternity, and anything could happen.
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Even if a candidate were to win 100 percent of the vote in every single state and territory prior to March 15th, he would still be a little more than 100 delegates short of the nomination. ^
- Cruz draws much of his support from the heavily evangelical and conservative South, much of which votes on Super Tuesday. Without strong performances in these ultraconservative states, Cruz’s path to the nomination will turn into a mathematical impossibility, as he cannot hope to outperform Rubio or Trump in the moderate states which come later on the primary calendar. ^