With an upcoming four-week break in the middle of primary season; with a decreasing likelihood that any single candidate can capture an outright majority of delegates; with an increasing number of delegates unbound to any candidate; and with most remaining primaries being Republican-voters-only and/or winner-take-all, the Republican nomination process is far from over.
The strangest campaign in modern American history marches on. After last night’s five primaries and the subsequent exit from the race of Marco Rubio, the conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have emerged as prohibitive favorites to win their respective parties’ nominations—amazing, as both candidates are viewed unfavorably by more than 50% of American voters. That inevitability analysis may be sound regarding Clinton; but the Republican nomination remains very much up in the air due to the interplay of a number of factors—some of which aren’t getting the attention they deserve.
The Current Standings. 1,237 is the magic number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination. As of this writing, Trump has won 621 delegates—fewer than 50% of the delegates awarded so far. Ted Cruz has won 396 delegates, and John Kasich 136. Of the remaining delegates up for grabs in the coming primaries, Trump will need to win 56% to lock up the nomination; Cruz needs 75%; and Kasich 99%. (Good luck with that, Governor Kasich.) It may be quite difficult for any of the candidates to reach the numbers they need just from the primaries, as those figures are well above where any of the candidates have been polling up to this point.
Then again, if Rubio’s voters—18% of Republicans—break for one candidate or the other, that could push Trump or Cruz over the top. On the whole, Rubio’s supporters might resent Cruz’s conduct toward Rubio in the campaign; but, like Rubio himself, they will have a harder time bringing themselves to support Trump. Advantage, Cruz.
Upcoming Winner-Take-All Primaries. 12 of the remaining 19 primaries award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, including delegate-rich states such as California and New York [Addendum: Though generally included on winner-take-all lists, CA and NY aren’t completly winner-take-all, as explained at the bottom of this post]. This may allow either Trump or Cruz to amass their needed delegates even if they continue to get less than 50% of the vote. By my count, 702 delegates will be in play in these primaries.
(The Democrats award all of their delegates proportionally—no winner-take-all primaries—which is why it will be so difficult for Bernie Sanders to catch up to Hillary Clinton. Even though she has not been winning delegates in blowouts—she has won 1,094 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 774—she has secured the support of 467 “superdelegates” (717 Democratic Party officials and elected politicians who automatically serve as delegates) to Sanders’ 26. 2,383 total delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.)
Upcoming Closed Primaries. Trump continues to underperform, relative to his overall polling numbers, in “closed” primaries—those where only registered Republicans may vote. He has won 5 of 12 closed primaries so far; Cruz has won 6. By my count, 13 of the remaining 19 primaries are closed, including the biggest winner-take-all-contests; 675 delegates will be at stake in these closed primaries.
The Four-Week “Spring-Break” in the Middle of Primary Season. There is a quirk in the primary schedule which could make things even more interesting. There will be two primaries next week on March 22. Then, there will be only one primary (Wisconsin) over the next four weeks (until April 19). Besides dulling the momentum any candidate may have going into this period, an awful lot can happen in four weeks to reshuffle the deck. After all, four weeks ago, no one was yet discussing Trump University, Trump Mortgage or Trump Steaks; who knows what might emerge over the upcoming four-week vacation period?
What Happens to Marco Rubio’s Delegates? Rubio won 168 delegates before withdrawing from the race. Other candidates who have previously withdrawn had won 38 delegates. To whom do those delegates go? Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated, as it depends on the rules of each individual state—and some states don’t yet even have set rules for this situation. But, in short, most of those delegates are still bound to the candidates to whom they were committed through the “first ballot” (the initial delegate vote) at the convention. About 20 of Rubio’s delegates, however, are now unbound and free to vote for any candidate. (There are analysts claiming that other interpretations of state laws suggest that over 150 of Rubio’s delegates may be unbound. Stay tuned.)
Other Unbound Delegates. A few states, including Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, have no statewide election to commit their delegates to any candidate. Others, like Pennsylvania, send a portion of their delegates to the convention unbound. Together, these account for 166 unbound delegates.
Where Does This Leave Us? Excellent question! This entire election has so far been notoriously unpredictable, and there is every reason to predict that it will continue to be unpredictable. But it does seem that it will be difficult for any Republican candidate to win an outright majority of delegates prior to the convention. That will leave the viable candidates scrambling for the support of the unbound delegates.
Will Trump be able to swing delegates originally committed to candidates he scorned and insulted? Will Cruz be able to match Trump when it comes to wheeling and dealing for the support of the unbound? If no candidate can assemble a majority on the first ballot, most of the delegates are released from their commitments on subsequent ballots; with nearly all the delegates unbound and in play, what might then emerge?
Conventional wisdom aside, this year’s wild Republican nomination ride is a long way from over.
[Addendum: Even though California and New York are generally placed on the lists of winner-take-all states, that is not the complete story. In California, it is winner-take-all by Congressional district for 159 of the delgates (3 from each Congressional district), with 13 “at-large” delegates going to the overall winner (at least that’s how I read it). New York has a more complicated system, but boils down to 87 delgates chosen by Congressional district, and 14 “at-large,” with a 50% winner-take-all trigger for both categories (which Trump is very likely to reach–he has a huge lead in NY, so it is effectively winner-take-almost-all for him). California becomes interesting because Republicans are not spread evenly across the Congressional districts; Bay Area/Marin County districts have a fraction of the Republicans of Orange County, but each gets the same three delegates.]