Trump’s victory not yet wrapped up… but time is running out

GOP Delegate Estimate following the Nevada Caucuses. Data from The Green Papers.

Donald Trump has won three of the four early states in the bid to become the Republican nominee for President, and has taken a modest lead in terms of delegates heading into Super Tuesday next week. This is the nightmare scenario for the GOP leadership, who see him as a huge risk in November’s general election.

Unfortunately, polling in individual states is too thin to be of any use. However, if we go on national polls (using data from Real Clear Politics), Mr. Trump will probably pick up between 250 and 300 of the 624 delegates up for grabs on Tuesday, with Ted Cruz taking between 150 and 200 and Marco Rubio between 100 and 150 (as well as a handful to John Kasich and Ben Carson). This means that the best case scenario for Mr. Trump is that he will finish Super Tuesday with about 30% of the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

In the two weeks after Super Tuesday, there are another 11 primary events, with another 356 delegates up for grabs. As per party rules, the delegates during these contests must be allocated proportionally to the candidates, which will bring Mr. Trump somewhere between 500 and 600 delegates by the second weekend of March. However, this rule goes out the window starting on March 15, when states are allowed to start holding winner-take-all contests. 367 delegates are up for grabs on that day, followed by 116 over the remainder of March, and nearly all of them will go to whomever is leading by then.

The question of who will get those March 15 delegates will come down to how many people are still in the race at that time. If both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio are still in the race, it is likely that the Anti-Trump vote will be split between the two men, giving Mr. Trump the breathing room he needs to take some of these larger states (such as the 99 delegates in Florida or 69 in Illinois) and develop an insurmountable lead come the end of the month.

On the other hand, if this becomes a two-horse race soon after Super Tuesday, this will give enough time for the anti-Trump vote to rally around a single candidate. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Mr. Trump trails both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio in one-on-one polls (both by similar margins). Whichever of these two men is still in the race, he will make up significant ground on March 15, and probably surpass Mr. Trump in early April. Assuming no real shift in these one-on-ones, this candidate will end up with the delegates he needs to win the nomination by the time the convention comes in July.

Right now, the important battle is the battle for second between Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, because both men know that whichever of the two men survives will win the nomination. But they can’t afford to let the fight go too much longer.

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