Trump: Not Inevitable But Getting Closer

Well, Super Tuesday has come and gone, and the defining aspect of this race remains the same: Donald Trump is the overwhelming frontrunner to be the Republican nominee. That said, Senator Ted Cruz had a surprisingly strong night, carrying 3 states (TX as expected but OK and AK were a bit surprising). Senator Marco Rubio did manage a win in MN, but it otherwise was a dour night for him. Governor John Kasich nearly stole Vermont, had a 2ndin Massachusetts, and took critical votes in Virginia but was barely relevant in the South. As expected, Dr. Ben Carson barely took any delegates and is exiting the race. Here is how the delegates seemed to break (note things are not finalized and Trump could be anywhere between 240 and 260 with Cruz anywhere between 205 and 225) and updated probabilities.

As you can see, from a delegate perspective, Trump performed in-line even though I thought he would get 9 or 10 states rather than 7. His strong delegate performance was fueled by Rubio’s inability to meet thresholds in TX, VT, and AL as well as larger than expected wins in TN and GA. These factors buoyed his results despite losses in OK and AK. By missing those thresholds, Rubio fell significantly short in the delegate count, and much of his underperformance mirrors Cruz’s outperformance.

However, moving forward, Trump is clearly in the driver’s seat. I struggle mightily to see a scenario where a candidate other than Trump claims the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, though I can still see the other candidates getting enough delegates together to block Trump from getting to 1,237 (though a finish below 900 would seem very unlikely). Yes, compared to what we were expecting 72 hours ago, Cruz had a good night. However, if we were told he won 3 states 1 month ago, that would have been disappointing because it is unclear what upcoming major states Cruz can beat Trump in 1 on 1. Super Tuesday is as good as it gets for Cruz. States like NY, NJ, PA, IN, and much of CA fit Trump better, even if the race narrowed. Cruz will continue to win a fair share of delegates, but to have a credible chance, he really needed to be the delegate leader. His path to the nomination is still hard to see, apart from some deal at the convention.

Similarly, Kasich is well positioned to compete in his state of Ohio and take the 66 delegates, but getting to a majority is hard to envision and is certainly dependent on Rubio losing Florida and dropping out on the 15th(note: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). Kasich must win Ohio, and if he does, he can accumulate more delegates in the North and Midwest to help block Trump. If Rubio loses FL, he could be the last, best hope against Trump and with enough wins, get enough delegates to take the nomination in a floor fight in Cleveland. The odds are long.

That leaves us with Rubio. He is so far back in the delegate count, he will basically need to win 2/3 of the remaining delegates, which is extremely unlikely. However, upcoming states are a far better fit for him than Cruz, and he is better funded than Kasich. In the event of a contested convention, there is a very good chance he is the nominee. However, his home state of Florida is a must-win for him, and polling shows him at least 10% behind. Early voting is also showing a substantial number of new voters, which is a positive for Trump. Losing those 99 delegates to Trump (it is winner take all) would give Trump an excellent shot at claiming 1,237 and be a devastating defeat to the Senator.

Expect Florida to be a war of attrition like 2012 with millions spent on TV ads (and the cavalry is coming with a heavily funded anti-Trump Super PAC hitting the airwaves), days of campaigning, and brutal attacks. Rumors continue to swirl Governor Rick Scott will endorse Trump, which would further lengthen Rubio’s odds. Florida is do or die for Rubio. If he wins (maybe a 25–33% shot at this point), he would suddenly be relatively well-positioned to take on Trump, but a loss is game-over. If Kasich were to lose alongside Rubio that night, the battle for the nomination would be effectively over with Trump able to run out the clock until he formally clinched it. Rubio is in a precarious position: the poor Super Tuesday showing makes getting an outright majority of delegates very difficult and forces him to come from behind in FL.

While Tuesday was in-line for Trump, he benefitted from the fact Cruz outperformed at Rubio’s expense, giving Cruz the rationale to stay in the race and continue splitting the vote. In future states, Rubio is more dangerous than Cruz, so Trump is happy to have Rubio further back in the delegate race. One cannot wonder if Rubio’s childish attacks on Trump backfired a bit. They may have succeeded in bringing down Trump but did some of those voters go to Cruz (who stayed above the fray to a degree) instead of Rubio? When you mud-wrestle, everyone gets dirty and the third person can benefit. Expect fireworks at the Thursday debate because the other candidates need to find a way to stop Trump by the 15th. If not, it will almost certainly be too late.

So that is how I see the race. Agree? Disagree? Let me know here or on Twitter!

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Originally published at scottsperspectives.wordpress.com on March 3, 2016.