Do you like math? I do. So does Sam Wang, a very smart numbers guy at Princeton who publishes the indispensable Princeton Election Consortium blog. His new, must-read post shows that unless something quite dramatic and, frankly, unexpected happens in the Republican primary race very soon, Donald Trump is almost certain to be the Republican nominee.
Why? The short version is that, given the (incredibly arcane and complicated) way in which Republican delegates are awarded, it’s quite possible for a candidate to amass enough delegates for the nomination yet never win a majority of the vote in any primary or caucus. Right now, Trump remains in the lead, polling in the low 30’s nationally, as he has been for a long time, and a bit better than that in South Carolina. There’s relatively little recent polling data from other states. And, of course, he has lots of momentum from his big NH win.
Wang ran a lot of numbers, and concluded:
The not-Trump scenario occurs if Republicans cull their field, fast. As far as I can tell, if Republicans want a candidate who is acceptable to most of their party to get most of the convention delegates, their deadlines are:
- Deadline 1 (February 29th): Get down to two alternatives to Donald Trump as a consequence of South Carolina and Nevada – and before voting starts on Super Tuesday, March 1st.
- Deadline 2 (March 14th): Settle on one alternative to Trump as a consequence of Super Tuesday and the March 5th-12th primaries.
… If these drop-dead dates aren’t met, Trump could still be stopped, but it would be difficult. First, it would require somebody other than Trump to take the popular lead in April. In a three-way race, that is hard to imagine. Even in a two-way race, it is not at all clear that Trump will lose, since for now, he picks up enough “Establishment” support in head-to-head matchups to get a majority. Consistent with this, exit polls in New Hampshire show that some Republicans of all stripes like Trump.
In other words, the GOP field needs to be reduced to three by Feb. 29, or two by March 14, for there to be a good chance to deny Trump the nomination. That seems very unlikely to me, for several reasons.
- Unlike most Republican primaries and caucuses, which award delegates in a way that Wang calls pseudo-proportional (it varies state by state), the delegate-rich contests in Ohio and Florida are winner-take-all. That creates an enormous incentive for candidates with home-field advantage in those states – Kasich, Rubio, and Jeb! – to stay in until then. And those contests (plus three other states) are on March 15, after Super Tuesday on March 1, and 8 other states plus DC and PR on March 5-12. By the time the results are in on March 15, almost 60% of Republican convention delegates will have been awarded.
- Kasich of course did unexpectedly well in NH and so has some wind at his back. He has little expectation of doing well in the south, where most of the upcoming contests are, so bad results there won’t push him out. Rather, he’ll try to hold on until states where he stands a better shot are in play, which is later in March and April. In addition, he just picked up a mega-donor and fundraiser in the person of Kenneth Langone, who formerly backed Chris Christie. That could give him just the financial boost he needs to survive poor showings on Super Tuesday.
- Bush and Rubio really don’t like each other. The notion of one of them conceding their home state of Florida to the other before the voting on March 15 seems implausible to me. Plus, while before NH Rubio had some momentum and Bush seemed to be fading, the NH results were awful for Rubio and not-great-but-sort-of-encouraging for Bush, so at this point they seem roughly evenly situated, and of course, both of them have wealthy SuperPACs behind them.
- Ted Cruz isn’t going anywhere. He’s had two solid showings, and he seems likely to do reasonably well in SC (he’ll probably finish second) and on Super Tuesday. And he’s so universally despised that, at this stage, it seems incredibly unlikely that the others would cede the field to him in hopes of stopping Trump. It’s not clear to me that they’d see a Cruz candidacy as any better for the party; anecdotal reports suggest that some establishment types would actually see it as worse.
Of course, things could change. Trump could finally self-destruct, though it’s increasingly difficult to see what he could do that would be outrageous enough to affect his support. His poll numbers could be wildly inflated, though NH certainly suggests that that is not the case at least in primary states. And support for say, Rubio or Bush could drastically surge, giving us a new frontrunner.
But it’s hard to see why any of that would happen any time soon.