A month-and-a-half into voting, more than 50 percent of the delegates that will be allocated by the Republican Party before its convention have already been distributed. In some universe out there in time-space, Jeb Bush gave a rousing speech from Miami on Tuesday night, graciously acknowledging that he’d locked up the 1,237 delegates he needed in order to be the party’s nominee.
Here on Earth One, though, things are a mess. Donald Trump took a big step forward as the votes in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — but it’s not clear that he has enough gas to make it to 1,237.
Let’s look at what we know — and what we don’t.
Can Trump get a majority of delegates before the convention?
Maybe. I know that’s not a super helpful answer, but it’s a very tricky question.
As it stands at this very moment — before we know who won Missouri and before we know how all of the delegates in Illinois will be sorted out — Trump has a 225-delegate lead over Ted Cruz, with just over half of the delegates he needs in order to get the nomination.
In other words, with a bit more than half of the total delegate pool allocated, Trump has just more than half of what he’d need to clinch the nomination. See the problem? According to our math, with those incomplete results from Tuesday, Trump started the night needing to win 58.5 percent of the remaining delegates and ended it needing to win 57.4 percent of them. That latter figure will drop as we figure out how many delegates Trump actually received; it could get as low as 53 percent.
The question is what happens next. March 15 was an important day on the Republican primary calendar in part because it marked the point at which states could start awarding delegates in a winner-take-all fashion. That’s been pointed to as an advantage for Trump, given that it means he can rack up a lot of delegates simply by eking out pluralities in the voting in winning states.
Except that there really aren’t that many true winner-take-all states left, and the ones that are don’t have many delegates. The seven remaining winner-take-all contests — the Virgin Islands, Arizona, Delaware, Nebraska, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — will award 226 delegates combined. That’s not nearly enough to hand Trump the nomination. Meaning that he’ll still need to accumulate delegates in the 15 other contests to make up the difference.
Except that a lot of the other states have systems that give the winner a disproportionate number of delegates — even if it isn’t a true winner-take-all. The term here? “Winner take most.”
Look at what happened in South Carolina, for example. Trump won the state, meaning he got all of the state’s at-large delegates. He also won all of the congressional districts, meaning he got the delegates from those, as well. It ended up being winner-take-all, even though it wasn’t designed to be. Many of the states still on the calendar allow challengers to pick off a few delegates from the statewide winner either by getting the most votes in a congressional district or, in some states, getting a delegate by coming in second. But statewide winners get a bonus for winning the state — and, because they won the state, are more likely to have won a number of congressional districts. Therefore, they get a disproportionate number of delegates.
This is precisely why modeling what happens next is so difficult. The two biggest states remaining are New York and California, and each awards a majority of its delegates based on the results in congressional districts. That can be hard to predict.
As Dave Wasserman noted last night, Trump earned a disproportionate number of delegates for his vote total on Tuesday thanks to the mix of allocation rules. That bodes well for him over the next few months.
Except that it’s not clear what happens with Marco Rubio out of the race. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Rubio’s support largely went to Ted Cruz in a two-person race. John Kasich is still hanging around, but it’s not clear how much of a drag he’ll be against Cruz moving forward. It’s another question mark.
Projections from Frontloading HQ and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki suggest that Trump will get just above the 1,237-delegate mark before the convention — but it will likely come down to California, where the winner of each of the state’s 53 congressional districts get three delegates apiece.
That doesn’t happen until June 7.
What happens to the delegates of people who’ve dropped out?
If Trump stumbles at all, or if he has a bad night in California, he could end up with almost 1,237 delegates, but not quite. At that point, another question comes into play — what about the delegates that have been awarded to other candidates, like Rubio?
As we noted in December, most delegates are bound to candidates for the first vote at the convention. When we talk about Trump’s aim for 1,237 delegates, we’re talking about the ones that are bound to him.
While state rules vary, a lot of the delegates from former candidates will enter the convention “unbound,” able to vote for whichever candidate they wish. Former RNC counsel Ben Ginsberg noted on MSNBC on Tuesday night that there are already several hundred delegates that are in that pool. Theoretically, then, a Ted Cruz — or a Donald Trump — could get commitments from those delegates that get them a lot closer to (or past) that 1,237 threshold.
Which is why it’s important who those people are — as in, who the actual delegates are, where they’re from, what their politics are. At Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg has great look at how campaigns are fighting to make sure that even delegates bound to candidates might back their guy as a second choice once it comes time to vote at the convention.
The summary here is ugly. It’s very hard to say whether or not Donald Trump can lock up a majority of delegates before the convention, and it’s very hard to say whether or not he’d prevail in voting at the convention if he didn’t. There are simply too many moving parts.
He has consistently called for the party to unite behind his candidacy in order to remove any doubt, often arguing that he’s the only candidate who can get anywhere close to the threshold. (Cruz would likely need about 90 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination, which, barring Trump’s abduction by extraterrestrials, is unlikely.) On Wednesday morning, he offered a less subtle incentive: Refusing him the nomination would likely result in “riots.”
As I said: It’s a mess.