Donald Trump is about 550 delegates short of earning the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the Republican nomination.
If he keeps winning at the pace he has so far, he will probably take 60 percent of the remaining 900 or so pledged delegates, reaching his target. But Trump’s path is deceptively tenuous, and it might not take much to knock him off.
It all hangs on whether Trump can continue to fend off Ted Cruz in states where Trump is relatively weak. He barely did it in Missouri (with an official result still pending) and North Carolina on Tuesday, when Cruz showed unexpected strength.
The Trump Base
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Trump can cover about half the distance of what he needs simply by sweeping the states where he’s expected to fare well. The voting patterns and demographics of the remaining states look pretty good for him. He has an added advantage in that the delegate rules over the second half of the primary season make it easier for him to earn lopsided delegate tallies in many states.
Trump is a strong favorite in the remaining primaries in the East and Appalachia, like New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island. These states play to most of his demographic strengths, including a moderate, less religious Republican electorate.
The delegate rules in these states would let a victorious Trump claim more than 80 percent of the available delegates.
Trump should get at least 30 or so delegates in the three remaining proportional contests: Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. He could easily get more.
Trump’s tally could grow even further with a big win in Pennsylvania on April 26, but he faces a complication: the “loophole” primary. Voters directly elect 54 of the 71 delegates, and the loyalty of delegates isn’t plainly stated on the ballot. The other 17 delegates are awarded winner-take-all; it’s hard to know how much of the others Trump could count on if he won.
It’s a lot harder to figure out the remaining states.
There are the winner-take-all primaries in the West and Great Plains: Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and Nebraska. They’re worth more than 100 delegates. Trump has generally struggled in the Plains states and farther West, but he will probably be favored in Arizona and Montana if the race keeps going as it has. (You can see the hints of his potential strength there in how he did in nearby Nevada and parts of Idaho). He would find himself in a close race in South Dakota or Nebraska and might even be considered an underdog.
There is also a contest in Utah; Cruz is likely to clear the 50 percent threshold needed to claim all of that state’s delegates.
Then there are the four states that award their delegates on winner-take-all by congressional district: Indiana, Maryland, Wisconsin and California — the last being the biggest prize of the season, with 172 delegates.
Indiana has the potential to be a state somewhat like nearby Missouri and Kentucky — a good state for Trump, but perhaps for Cruz as well.
California, Wisconsin and Maryland could be three weak states for Trump, but he might win over divided opposition. That’s because Cruz, who based part of his campaign on drawing evangelicals and who is the main opponent to Trump, is weakest in relatively liberal and less religious areas. The result is a divided opposition that lets Trump win wider margins of victory with a smaller share of the vote.
Just compare the results in states like Michigan and Illinois with Missouri and North Carolina. Trump actually won a larger share of the vote in Missouri and North Carolina than he did in Michigan and Illinois. Yet he easily won Illinois by 8 points and Michigan by 12 points, because his opposition was more evenly divided between a relatively weak Cruz and a strong John Kasich.
Trump found himself in far closer races — a true dead heat in Missouri and a 3-point race in North Carolina — because Cruz was able to consolidate the preponderance of the anti-Trump vote.
How Trump Wins
If the rest of the primary season goes as it did in early March, Trump could win the nomination with around 1,300 delegates, based on a model of how demographics have correlated with the strength of the candidates so far.
The model isn’t perfect — it struggles to some extent with the big variations in Trump’s strength on the Plains and out West, where there have been relatively few primaries so far. It also can’t capture the potential effect of strategic voting (like not voting for your favorite candidate in an attempt to help him in the future) or of the candidates’ decisions to concentrate their effort in some states more than others. But it nonetheless offers a realistic path that’s consistent with the results so far.
The model points to big Trump wins in a number of blue states, allowing him to rack up large delegate margins. He wins in California in almost the same way that he did in Illinois and Michigan — showing vulnerability but benefiting from a split field and Cruz’s blue-state weakness.
Trump then edges out Cruz across red or purple states, as he did in North Carolina. Cruz wins Wisconsin, Nebraska, Washington and Utah (where he clears the 50 percent winner-take-all threshold). But it’s still not enough to stop Trump.
The Post-Rubio Effect
But Trump’s lead could close if the votes from his opposition consolidate further. And there are signs of that.
Trump’s impressive showing in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina on Tuesday led a lot of people to overlook just how strong Cruz really was. Cruz hit 40 percent of the vote in Missouri, something he had done only in Texas, in caucus states and in the Mormon areas of eastern Idaho. He hit 37 percent of the vote in North Carolina and swept the metropolitan parts of the state, usually an area of weakness for Cruz. He even won 30 percent of the vote in Illinois — again, something he hadn’t done in a blue-state primary (although he still showed considerable weakness in the core of the Chicago metropolitan area).
The easiest explanation is that Cruz was consolidating the conservative voters of a weakening Marco Rubio, who dropped out after Trump trounced him in the Florida primary. Cruz’s advance into the 30s puts him within striking distance of Trump in a lot of states where Trump might have been a big favorite earlier in the year. It would not take too many additional gains for Cruz to turn key states into tossups, or even to win them.
In this scenario, Trump barely wins states where Cruz is fairly strong, including winner-take-all contests in South Dakota, Montana and Arizona. If Trump lost those states, he would probably fall short of 1,237.
What’s more, Cruz is in striking distance in a much longer series of primaries — including California — where he could go from losing to winning with even fairly modest gains. Those gains could come from strategic voting by Kasich supporters who decide to help Cruz in denying Trump his delegate target. It’s not even clear how strong Kasich will be by June, when California votes.
It’s possible that Rubio’s departure alone could be enough to stop Trump. Cruz would overtake Trump in enough states to deny Trump a majority of delegates if Rubio’s projected voters were reallocated in proportion to Kasich and Cruz’s strength by congressional district.
Not all of Rubio’s supporters will vote. Not all will vote against Trump. But if Cruz picks up the preponderance of even the small segment of voters Rubio was winning, it could be enough to start flipping a few close contests. It might have allowed Cruz to pull away in Missouri and perhaps even win North Carolina. Since the Republican delegate rules now tilt more heavily toward the winner, the difference between slight losses and slight wins in states can easily shift huge numbers of delegates – and decide whether Trump wins the nomination.
Many of these states are already poised to be close. It wouldn’t take much to knock Trump off track, even if he clearly seems to be on it now.