The Republican Party has turned on Donald Trump as noted here yesterday. When asked by the press whether they could support Mr. Trump were he to be the party’s nominee, the big-wigs in the party all answered, “That isn’t going to happen.” Some pundits have even noted that 35% of the vote doesn’t get a candidate enough delegates to win at the convention. They are wrong. The party rules make a Trump nomination likely at this stage.
First off, one must know how to keep score. In baseball, one looks at runs. In soccer, one looks at goals. In Republican nominating conventions, one watches delegate counts. The party’s nominee will need 1,144 delegates at the convention for a bare majority. Everything else from polling data to votes cast are simply statistics that don’t matter. They are as relevant as hits in baseball or corner kicks won in soccer. They are not how one wins.
Under the rules of the party, Iowa (30 delegates), New Hampshire (23), South Carolina (50) and Nevada (30) get to go first. Any state that holds a primary ahead of them loses seats for its delegation. Caucus states don’t have that problem because the caucus process takes weeks, even months to award delegates. States that hold their primaries between March 1 and March 14 award delegates by proportional representation. In short, the votes won will correspond reasonably well to the number of delegates won.
After March 15, delegates are awarded in a winner-take-all setting. That will play to Mr. Trump’s advantage unless the party has winnowed the field down to just him and an establishment candidate. With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina in the mix, the game is more likely to be a four-to-six candidate race in the second half of March. As noted previously here, 30-35% of the vote in a two-candidate race is an embarrassment. That same support in a field of several is a plurality, insurmountable if the field is big enough. This is where Mr. Trump can win.
After March 15, several big states will have yet to vote. On that date, Florida (99 delegates), Illinois (69), Missouri (52), North Carolina (72) and Ohio (66) hold their primaries. New York (95) is set to vote on April 19, and a week later Pennsylvania (71) is one five states with a primary. Indiana (57) isn’t a huge prize, but it’s the biggest in May. Then, on June 7, California (172) and New Jersey (51) vote. Those states alone account for 804 delegates. Throw in the smaller states that vote after March 15, and it is clear that a candidate could have zero delegates on March 14 and still win the nomination. Mr. Trump’s 30-35% standing in the polls will ensure that he has quite a few even before mid-March, good enough for 50 out of Texas alone on March 1 for example.
Between now and February when Iowa starts the process off in earnest, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus needs to get some candidates to pull out. The temptation for the candidates is to see how things go in the first few races, hoping for a finish that exceeds expectations. That will create a media buzz, and it will offer a candidate a break-out. The chairman will have to slam the window shut after South Carolina votes on February 27 if he can’t do it before that date.
Even then, the party could well face a winnowing of the anti-establishment candidates. Ms Fiorina may not do very well in the first month, and she could withdraw. The same applies to Dr. Carson. In the latest poll in New Hampshire announced Tuesday, Mr. Trump has 32% of the voters’ support while Ms Fiorina and Dr. Carson have 5% each. Should they quit, Mr. Trump is likely to pick up all their backers. Anyone attracted to them is unlikely to opt for a more establishment choice. At 40-45% support, Mr. Trump becomes almost impossible to beat unless he faces a single candidate starting March 1. Mr. Priebus needs to start making some serious phone calls now.