For most of the modern primary cycles, the delegate math has been driven by momentum early on in the season. Typically, once the front-runner wins most of the key early primaries and comes out with more delegates and states on Super Tuesday, he becomes the presumptive nominee. The other candidates might hang in for another month and score a few wins, but they are usually fighting a losing battle similar to the confederate army in 1864. Primaries are driven by momentum and don’t work like football games where it is not uncommon for the losing team in the first half to come out of the locker room after halftime and win the game in the latter two quarters.
This primary season is different in every way imaginable. And it’s very likely that if Marco Rubio and John Kasich exit the race after March 15 — the halftime of this nomination process — Ted Cruz can beat out Donald Trump in the second half of the race and come away with more delegates, if not close to a majority.
How We Got here: Why this year is different
Donald Trump came in second in Iowa and won landslides in three of the remaining early states. At that point with any other front-runner, the process would have been over in all but name only. However, Trump is the most unique candidate to ever run for president in the modern era. His strength is his weakness. On the one hand, he has a very high floor of support because he has garnered more media attention than any candidate in the history of presidential politics. On the other hand, because of who he is and what he has done, that same media attention has convinced almost every other Republican voter not already supporting him to oppose him at all costs.
Consequently, the momentum he picked up from the early states could not be used to grow his support. He continued to do well because of the divided field, but as the field narrowed Cruz was able to battle Trump almost to a draw in delegates from Super Tuesday onward. And as my colleague, Rob Eno has observed in a detailed analysis, had this battle been a two man race after Super Tuesday, Cruz would already be leading in delegates. And that doesn’t factor in the 80+ gap Cruz would have closed with Trump from winning all of Texas’s delegates had Rubio not played spoiler there.
At present, Trump has a 100 delegate lead over Cruz. Here is where things stand:
The March 15 Roadblock
Donald Trump could not ask for a more fortuitous situation in which the mixture of his challengers, their home states, and winner-take-all status all coalesce in his favor at the perfect time. Ted Cruz would likely surpass Trump in delegates next week if not for the unprecedented factor of having two candidates with no path to winning a single state, much less the nomination, staying in so they can “win” their home states. In the case of Rubio, he will likely lose Florida; in the case of Kasich there is a 50% chance he tips the state to Trump. They are so weak that they are struggling to win their home states. But on the other hand, because they have a floor of support, it prevents Ted Cruz, the only man who could beat Trump, from seriously competing in those states. And luck would have it that they are both massive states and are winner-take-all, allowing Trump to come away with a 165-delegate haul if he wins both states. Kasich in Ohio and Rubio in Florida are two burning dumpsters strewn out across the highway blocking Cruz’s path to catching Trump.
Aftermath of March 15
There are two possible outcomes of the Ohio/ Florida dumpster fire: Trump could beat Rubio in Florida and lose to Kasich in Ohio or he could win both states. Obviously, from Trump’s vantage point, the best outcome would be two win both states and net a full 165 delegates. But from Cruz’s vantage point this is a double-edged sword.
The downside of Trump winning Ohio is that Cruz would be down an additional 66 delegates to Trump rather than having those delegates go into the Kasich dumpster. On the other hand, by having Kasich and Rubio both lose their states and exit the race, Cruz will finally be able to go man-a-mano against Trump for the remainder of the race. And as we will explore, it might be worth having Trump net an extra 66 delegates up front in order to prevent Kasich from playing spoiler with hundreds of remaining delegates at stake.
Now, what happens if Trump wins the 99 delegates in Florida, especially if he wins the 66 delegates in Ohio? Won’t this be the end of the race? Doesn’t Trump have it in the bag? This will be the narrative the fawning media tries to promulgate on the night of March 15. However, the race would be far from over at that point, and this scenario will actually lead to the downfall of Trump.
First, while all of the media attention is focused on Ohio and Florida, Cruz should be able to win the other three big states that day: Illinois (69), Missouri (52), and North Carolina (72). Unfortunately for Cruz, North Carolina is perfectly proportional and he will likely net fewer than 10 delegates over Trump from the Tar Heel State.
However, Missouri and Illinois are winner- take-all by state and plurality (not majority) in each congressional district. Thus, a uniform win in Missouri should result in a winner-take-all victory. In Illinois, I’m assuming Cruz wins statewide and in 11 districts, while Trump wins 7 districts, thanks in large part to John Kasich dividing the anti-Trump vote in the northern part of the state.
Those three states alone could allow Cruz to net 80-90 delegates over Trump and counter Trump’s 99-delegate haul from Florida or 165-delegate haul from Florida and Ohio combined. Also, between now and next Tuesday, there will be voting in three more territories as well as D.C. These are very tenuous assumptions, but Cruz has organized well in these areas, and Trump is unlikely to find too many supporters in D.C. Kasich and Rubio are still wild cards, but either way Cruz should do better there than Trump.
Outcome of March 15: If these tenuous assumptions are true, and we will update this projection over the next few days, Trump will be at 679 delegates and Cruz will be at 528 on the morning of March 16. Thus, even assuming Trump sweeps both Florida and Ohio, he will only lead Cruz by 151 delegates. This is a very optimistic outlook, but even a more pessimistic spread of the non-Ohio/Florida states and territories in the coming days would likely result in Trump coming out of Super Tuesday 2.0 no more than 200 delegates ahead of Cruz.
Unshackling Cruz from the Chains of Rubio and Kasich
While Trump would likely net an additional 60-100 delegates over Cruz (on top of his existing 100-delegate lead) next Tuesday, it will come at a big cost to him. It will result in driving Rubio and Kasich out of the race.
Throughout this race, the polls and exit polls have consistently shown that Cruz would beat Trump head-to-head in almost every state, winning by wide margins in many of them. In most states Trump has a floor of about 35-38%, but he has an impervious ceiling in the low 40s.
The national polls show that if Kasich and Rubio exited the race, Cruz would win rise by about 30 points and Trump would get somewhere between 4-6 points. The latest NBC/WSJ national poll projects Cruz to beat Trump 57-40 in a hypothetical two-way race while the ABC/Washington Post poll has Cruz beating Trump 54-41. Notice how they both have Trump around 40% in a two-man race, similar to what we saw from the Michigan exit poll, which also showed Cruz winning a hypothetical two-man race. The Michigan exit poll showed that almost half the voters downright feel Trump is dishonest and a similar percentage would be “unsatisfied” with him as the nominee. That’s a clear indication that had Kasich and Rubio not been in the race, Trump would not have grown much from the 36.5% he garnered in the Wolverine State.
Not only does the math change once this becomes a two-man race, the entire tenor, narrative, and dynamic of the race changes. In addition to consolidating the anti-Trump vote, Cruz will have the opportunity to win back some (not all) of the conservative voters supporting Trump. Rather than this being a false choice of “an anti-establishment outsider” vs. a gang of boring politicians cheered on by the very establishment figures that have fueled Trump’s rise to begin with, Trump would be countered entirely by the only true anti-establishment outsider in this race. Unlike the other candidates and their surrogates, Cruz has the credibility with the base to prosecute the case against Trump.
A Projection of the Race post – March 15
Because of the aforementioned factors, even in the worst-case scenario Cruz should be able to catch Trump in delegates and very likely come close to the magic number of 1,237. While it will be tough to win an outright majority of delegates, he would have a great path to winning a plurality and coming into a convention with the mandate of winning more delegates, and most of the key states in the second half of the primary.
To be clear, there is no way to predict what will happen a week from now, let alone in the June 7 primaries. But based on the assumption that Cruz leads Trump nationally by a wide margin in a two-man race, here is a plausible outcome that will win Cruz a majority of the delegates, factoring in the allocation rules of each state — when we wake up on June 8: Cruz 1239, Trump 987, and roughly 250 for other candidates.
Despite the clear indication from national polling that Cruz would run the table, I still assume, for the purpose of this exercise, that Trump will win six remaining states: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and West Virginia. I give him the first five states because of assumed regional strength and West Virginia because of the demographics being similar to a state like Mississippi where Trump performed very well.
In every other winner-take-all or winner-take-congressional-district state, I’m assuming that Cruz would win a pretty uniform victory. Based on Cruz’s ability to win most closed primaries/caucuses even with a split field, it’s pretty easy to assume he would win the rest of the closed primaries going forward without others splitting the vote.
Here is my spreadsheet:
|Subtotal as of 3/8/16||464||363||154||53||13||5|
Assumptions worked into this Spreadsheet:
Whether Cruz meets these benchmarks and get to 1237, at least with the unpledged delegates, or whether he wins a plurality over Donald Trump is all built upon the assumption that Kasich and Rubio leave the race. And this is why I actually think it’s worth ceding 66 more delegates to Trump in the short run and have Kasich lose Ohio. Sure, if Kasich wins Ohio, Trump will be 66 delegates closer to Cruz, but it will come at a huge cost. Kasich will stay in the race, even though he is unlikely to win a single state. He will siphon off 15-20% of the vote, especially around big cities and especially in the Midwest. He can easily tip California, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin to Donald Trump.
This is why, for those who don’t want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, it’s either Cruz or lose. Granted, having Kasich (or even Rubio) stay in the race along with Cruz will also result in Trump missing the delegate majority. But such an outcome would keep Cruz way below Trump in delegates and allow Trump to win all of the major states. Trump will have a tremendous mandate going into the convention. And while the party officials could likely get the delegates, most of whom are not selected by the candidates but by the state party apparatus, to flip on a second ballot, that will not end well. It will cause a permanent civil war in the party and Hillary Clinton will win the general election.
The only way to beat Donald Trump is to beat Donald Trump.
Earlier this week, Donald Trump told CNN that he believes that candidate who has the most delegates coming into the convention should be chosen as the Republican nominee. We should hold him to that commitment.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.