Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The State of the Race: Clinton vs. Sanders, Trump vs. Math

Since the night of the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic presidential nomination race has been a competition between two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The Republican contest, however, has now become a closely-matched battle between a single candidate, Donald Trump, and the number 1,237—a sum representing the delegate total that a Republican candidate needs to win in order to be nominated at the party’s national convention this July.

Last night’s primary elections in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio clarified the status of both parties’ nomination races. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s victories in all five states, including a 2-to-1 popular margin over Sanders in Florida, gave her a virtually insurmountable lead in the national delegate count. Sanders will presumably fight on into the spring, but his campaign cannot realistically overtake Clinton’s numerical advantage among pledged delegates—and he is even further behind when the heavily pro-Clinton population of superdelegates is added to the arithmetic.

For the Republicans, Tuesday’s election results extended Trump’s lead over the other remaining candidates who nominally represent his political competition. Even more importantly, however, they increased the probability that he will prevail over what now looms as his most formidable opponent: the requirement that presidential nominees win an overall majority of delegates.

Trump benefited from a Republican party rule that allows states voting or after March 15 to allocate delegates to candidates via non-proportional formulas. (In contrast, the Democratic National Committee imposes a uniform proportionality requirement on all state primaries and caucuses.) His decisive victory in Florida received particular attention in the news media for ending the presidential candidacy of Marco Rubio, who was favored by many Republican leaders and campaign professionals. But it was also noteworthy for significantly bolstering Trump’s position in the delegate hunt, since the state awards all 99 of its delegates to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

In Illinois and Missouri, most Republican delegates are allocated in a winner-take-all fashion at the level of individual congressional districts. This procedure also favored Trump, who tends to attract a broadly-distributed geographic base of support. Trump received 41 percent of the statewide popular vote in Missouri—edging out rival candidate Ted Cruz by less than 2,000 votes—and 39 percent in Illinois, but appears to have accumulated as much as three-quarters of the delegates from both states.

Trump lost Ohio, and its 66 delegates, to John Kasich, but even in defeat the news was not all bad for the front-runner. Kasich had indicated that he would fold his campaign if he lost his home state, but the results in Ohio keep him in the race for now. Kasich’s continued presence as an active candidate will reduce the share of delegates won by Trump in upcoming state primaries that continue to employ proportional allocation formulas, but the likelihood that Kasich and Cruz split the anti-Trump vote may allow Trump to gain substantial numbers of delegates from the larger number of winner-take-all states even if he falls short of an overall popular majority. In any event, the delegate allocation rules from this point forward provide the leading candidate with a clear structural advantage; as long as Trump keeps winning states, he will receive a disproportionate share of the remaining delegates.

It is yet impossible to predict with certainty whether or not Trump will succeed in reaching the magic number of 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary season, which is still nearly three months away. But Tuesday’s results virtually ensure that Trump will at least come close to that milestone—absent a spectacular and unprecedented collapse in his popular support—and will be able to claim more state-level victories, more popular votes, and more delegates won than any other Republican presidential candidate.

Trump has made it clear that he will demand the nomination even if he only achieves a plurality, arguing at the March 10 debate in Miami that “whoever gets the most delegates should win.” But the members of the Republican Party who cannot accommodate themselves to the Trump candidacy—a faction led unofficially by 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney—have staked their hopes on stopping Trump short of a majority and maneuvering in a contested convention to award the nomination to somebody else.

This plan has always faced significant obstacles, from the inherent difficulties in coordination among a large population of party officials and delegates to the certainty of outraged protest not only by Trump but also by Cruz, the probable second-place finisher in the delegate race, who is unlikely to represent the Republican leadership’s favored alternative prospective nominee. But perhaps the most powerful force working against the stop-Trump movement is the widely-accepted norm of democratic legitimacy awarded to the leading candidate in an electoral competition. Even the recipient of a mere plurality can claim to be the people’s choice, at least in comparison to any other single individual, and Trump, as a near-certainty to place first in the delegate count, will surely do so with no little vehemence.

Tuesday’s results indicate that Trump could well achieve an outright majority of delegates by the end of the primary calendar—and will otherwise fall short by a relatively modest margin. Republicans dedicated to blocking his ascent must not only mobilize to develop a procedural plan to take control of the nomination process on the inside, but must also begin to persuade the American public that denying the prize to the leading Republican candidate is not an unfair and illegitimate use of power by party elites. Otherwise, the conflict and rancor that we have seen so far in this campaign will pale in comparison to what lies ahead.