What to expect from the GOP’s Super Tuesday

On Tuesday, Republican voters from 11 states will vote to select the person who they believe is best suited to represent their party in the general election this fall. Super Tuesday, as tomorrow’s contest is aptly named, will add the beginnings of clarity to what has thus far been a shocking and unpredictable primary battle. The states represented hail from a variety of geographic regions, including the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Northeast, thus giving a powerful insight into how the rest of the race might unfold for each of the candidates. The delegate awards are also significant, with 595 delegates—just about a quarter of the total—on the line.

Here are my expectations for Super Tuesday:

1) Trump will win more delegates than Cruz or Rubio

This prediction was easy to make. The polling data available indicates that Donald Trump will win by a comfortable margin in several of the Super Tuesday states. Massachusetts and Alabama look particularly strong for the real estate mogul. Alabama lacks a major metropolitan center, where Marco Rubio tends to excel, and has demonstrated a willingness to take a chance on political outsiders in recent years, electing an anti-establishment governor back in 2010. In Massachusetts, Trump has been crushing his competition in the polls by well over 20 points, with one new poll showing him with a slim majority of the vote at 51 percent. He will be unstoppable there.

And as my table below illustrates, in no state is Trump in danger of missing a qualifying threshold, which is a minimum percentage of the vote that a candidate must attain in order to be able to earn delegates. In other words, Mr. Trump’s poll numbers are strong enough across the board to ensure that he will not come out of any state that has qualifying thresholds without bringing some delegates with him. In states with high thresholds and large delegate awards like Texas and Georgia, Mr. Trump stands to capture a significant chunk of the delegates and fortify his position as the race hurtles toward the winner-take-all states on March 15th. For Senators Rubio and Cruz, however, the qualifying thresholds are problematic. Mr. Rubio currently lags behind Texas’ lofty 20 percent minimum and is in danger in Tennessee, while Mr. Cruz will miss out on delegates in Alabama and, barring a miracle, Vermont.

Super Tuesday Delegate Math Visual

My Super Tuesday delegate math visual. QT stands for qualifying threshold, which is the minimum percentage of the vote a candidate must receive statewide (AL) or in each congressional district (CD) in order to receive delegates. WTAT is short for winner-take-all threshold, the minimum percentage needed statewide (AL) or in a particular congressional district (CD) in order for a candidate to win all of the delegates offered statewide or in a particular congressional district.

2) Cruz will emerge weakened or defeated

This week has not been a good one for Ted Cruz, particularly in the lead-up to the most important part of the primary calendar for his campaign. At last week’s debate, Cruz had hoped to frame the GOP contest as a two-man race between him and Donald Trump, but it was Marco Rubio who ultimately did the framing. His sharp, aggressive debate performance on Thursday night captured the headlines all weekend and elbowed Cruz out of the anti-Trump slot and into a media death spiral.

Cruz is in an undeniably difficult, if not impossible position at this point in the race. His reliance upon strong support from evangelicals to power his candidacy has proven to be a grave error, with evangelicals and born-again Christians breaking strongly for Trump, not Mr. Cruz, in South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Sen. Cruz’s narrow appeal also will cost him dearly after March 15th, when the primary calendar turns to more moderate coastal states.

cruz_unhappy

From the very beginning, Ted Cruz’s slim path to the nomination rested upon a southern sweep powered by an enthusiastic mass of evangelical voters. Now that Cruz is on the defensive in his home state and barely holding onto second in several others, it is clear that this strategy has completely failed. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It is for this reason that I believe Ted Cruz will exit the GOP race prior to the winner-take-all primaries on March 15th. Though he will earn a sizable number of delegates on Tuesday, doing so will not be enough to overcome the tremendous demographic crisis which Cruz’s campaign faces in this race. Even if evangelicals were to give him a string of victories in the South on Tuesday (they won’t), Cruz would need to clear the field before March 15th in order to have even the slightest chance of winning the nomination. But such a clearance would be unthinkable. I see no normal scenario in which Marco Rubio, who will earn a good number of delegates on Super Tuesday and have several moderate states to look forward to beyond March 15th, drops out of the race before Florida votes. And though Governor John Kasich may very well exit the race before the 15th, his supporters tend to be much more moderate than the average Cruz supporter and are thus unlikely to throw their support to the ultraconservative Texas senator if Kasich departs.

Texas is the state to watch for Sen. Cruz. If Cruz earns a hair-splitting victory or loses, expect the Texas senator to pack his bags and leave the race. A decisive victory, along with a string of third-place finishes in the South, might also push Cruz to head for the exits. On the other hand, a breakout performance across the South will keep his campaign alive and, if Mr. Cruz stays in the race through March 15th, dramatically increase the likelihood of a brokered convention or a Trump victory.

3) Kasich needs second place in Massachusetts and Vermont

Contrary to the messaging which John Kasich’s campaign has been pressing in the past few weeks, winning Ohio will not be sufficient to boost Kasich to the presidential nomination. For starters, if Kasich’s Super Tuesday performance roughly matches his current poll standing, he will miss the qualifying thresholds in nine of the ten states which impose them and lose out on all of the combined 504 delegates which those nine award.

kasich_hd

If John Kasich cannot amass a few hundred delegates before March 15th, even a victory in Ohio and several commanding performances thereafter will leave the nomination out of reach. (Steve Helber/AP)

If Kasich is playing to win, his window will close rapidly after Super Tuesday. Kasich’s path to the nomination will only become feasible if he manages to win a large chunk of delegates, ideally around 350 to 400, prior to March 15th. Nothing—and I mean nothing—in the data I have seen suggests that this is possible for Kasich. Beyond the 15th, only 975 delegates remain for the taking, and 1,237 delegates are required in order to win the nomination. Without a miraculous performance on Super Tuesday and strong showings in the other primaries prior to March 15th, Kasich’s statistical probability of attaining the nomination will rapidly approach zero, as there simply won’t be enough delegates remaining for him to win the nomination even if he captures Ohio.

If Kasich really wants to stay in, the only way he will be able to justify doing so is with strong second-place finishes in Massachusetts and Vermont, states which are home to many liberal and moderate Republican primary voters. If he cannot best Rubio in these states, the only reasons for him to stay in the race are to help Donald Trump get elected or, as one pundit suggested, to become a power broker in the event of a contested convention. I do not believe either of these reasons are compelling for Gov. Kasich; as such, I feel it is more likely than not that he will withdraw from the race before March 15th’s winner-take-all primaries if he does poorly in Massachusetts and Vermont on Tuesday.

NY Times Delegate Calculator Screengrab

Even in the above scenario, where Kasich performs as expected on Super Tuesday and then surges to huge victories on March 15th and everywhere thereafter, the Ohio governor falls way short of the nomination. (Graphic courtesy of the NY Times)

4) Rubio needs to show his strength

Though Marco Rubio could coast through Super Tuesday without a victory and have a big chunk of delegates to show for it, delegate counts aren’t sexy. Wins are.

Based on the polling data and trends, Sen. Rubio will have a number of strong second-place finishes on Tuesday. Alabama, Vermont, and Virginia appear to be relatively secure second-place slots for Rubio, while Massachusetts and Georgia are leaning toward Rubio. In two other states, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the second-place slot is a toss-up between Rubio and Cruz. Taking second in all of these states would certainly fortify Mr. Rubio’s position as the anti-Trump candidate, but it would still leave him with nothing but a nice delegate count to show for 15 state primaries and caucuses.

Keep an eye on four states tomorrow:

  1. Minnesota: The Midwest is one of the few areas of the country where Trump’s poll numbers have failed to take off. A recent poll of Utah Republicans showed Sen. Rubio leading the field by a narrow margin, and another survey taken last month in Minnesota showed the Florida senator leading there by two points. Though a lot has changed since these polls were conducted, Rubio’s demographic appeal, combined with several key endorsements and strong support from state-level legislators, give him the edge in the Minnesota caucus. This state is Rubio’s best shot for a victory on Super Tuesday.
  2. Arkansas: The most recent poll of Arkansas, taken at the beginning of February, shows the race as a three-way tie between Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. As such, this state is pretty much a toss-up. But if endorsements matter, Mr. Rubio might just come out on top, having earned the support of Arkansas’ governor and two of the state’s four U.S. congressmen.
  3. Alaska: Low turnout and a dearth of polling data combine to make this state almost completely unpredictable. Anything could happen here.
  4. Virginia: Though a bit of a long shot—Trump was 13 points ahead in the most recent poll—Virginia is very well-educated relative to the early primary states, which plays to Rubio’s advantage. If he can create strong turnout in the northern part of the state, where many highly educated federal workers make their homes, there is a small chance that Rubio can overtake Trump in Virginia.

A bevy of strong second-place finishes, coupled with a victory or two, would greatly strengthen Marco Rubio’s grip on the anti-Trump mantle and give the Florida senator a much needed boost as the race moves into the winner-take-all primaries on March 15th.


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