Maximum Trump: His Road to a 1st Ballot Nomination (or not!)

Last week I published an article where I concluded that Trump could not mathematically win a 1st ballot nomination for the Republican party for President. Since then the South Carolina primary was conducted, Jeb Bush quit the race, and I learned a lot about the arcane rules of GOP delegate assignments. It’s time to revise my analysis.

I have refined my model and it is now designed to narrow the focus on the outcome I call “Maximum Trump” — if everything goes right for Trump how many delegates will he win?

You can view my data and my model at this link.

Caveat: I have found conflicting information about how states bind their “RNC” delegates (the 3 Delegates each state and the 6 territories get for the members of the Republican National Committee).
Maximum Trump assumes that these delegates are pledged unless I have data that says they are not from The Green Papers site (which appears to have the most accurate rules for each state). Other sources suggest that 42 states & territories do not bind their RNC Delegates (126 Delegates total) which as you’ll see can have a very meaningful impact on the race. If and when I get some clarity on this issue this post will be revised.

My current model predicts Maximum Trump is 1,513 delegates which is enough for a 1st ballot win at the nominating convention. So I will reverse my previous analysis of a 1st ballot victory from he cannot win to instead be his nomination is not assured. And I’ll express an opinion that his nomination on the 1st ballot is doubtful.

If Trump gets 277 fewer delegates than Maximum Trump, there will be an open convention with no 1st ballot nominee. There are all sorts of roadblocks in the way of Maximum Trump and a wide range of scenarios that deny him the nod thus my opinion.

Maximum Trump assumes that Trump has a hard ceiling of 35% and holds that 35% of the vote in each state, and that Cruz & Rubio get 26% and 24% respectively. It doesn’t matter if Cruz & Rubio switch places on a state by state basis. In fact as long as they collectively hold roughly 50% of the votes and never go below 20% individually, the model remains valid. The model assumes that Kasich stays in the race to the end and draws 10%, and so does Carson, drawing 5%. An alternate scenario ends this essay.

Candidates need 1,236 Delegates to ensure a 1st ballot nomination.

Maximum Trump does not achieve that milestone until after 7th of June when California holds its primary. No matter how well Trump does or does not do, we’re in for a long, chaotic ride.

Favorite Sons

I’ll take a short diversion to explain this term. “Favorite Sons” are candidates with a strong tie to a state. They’re usually elected officials from that state or someone with a very deep cultural and civic connection. When a “Favorite Son” is running even in a contested field they often perform substantially better than they would in a “generic” contest. In upcoming primaries there are 3 “Favorite Sons” — Cruz in Texas, Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio. Technically Trump is a “Favorite Son” in New York as well but it probably won’t matter.

When Winner Take All … Isn’t

The South Carolina primary was described in most media sources as “winner take all”, i.e. whichever candidate got the most votes would get all that state’s delegates.

Turns out, things were a lot more complex than that, and the complexity in South Carolina reflects the contests in 16 other states.

A quick recap. Each state gets 3 delegates for each Congressional “District” it has, and then a number of “At Large” delegates based on various factors regarding how successful the Republican party is in that state (Governors, House and Senate members, control of the legislature, etc.) plus 3 “RNC” (Republican National Committee) delegates who represent the state party.

In South Carolina, plus Missouri, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Maryland, Indiana and California, the two pools of delegates are awarded separately.

In those states all the “At Large” delegates are awarded to the candidate with the most votes statewide.

But the “District” delegates are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in that District. In South Carolina the outcome was essentially the same because Trump won every District. But Rubio almost won the 1st District and with it 3 delegates.

This is a crucial difference to track for the rest of the primary season. Even in the “Winner Take All” states, the winner isn’t guaranteed to take all.

Additional District Level Issues

In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, New York, and Washington State, the District delegates are awarded 2 for 1st place, 1 for 2nd place. To achieve Maximum Trump, he has to win all those Districts.

In Minnesota, Kansas, Louisiana, and Hawaii, the District delegates are awarded proportionately in each district.

So the order that the candidates finish in the Districts in those 16 states determines how many delegates they’ll receive. Trump has to finish first in every District to achieve Maximum Trump.

Until we have more data about his geographical performance and his ability to translate statewide wins into District wins (which we’ll start to see on Super Tuesday March 1st, and the other states that hold their nominating contests up through the 15th of March) it’s really impossible to firm up how many delegates Trump might sacrifice to District wins by Cruz and/or Rubio (or on the outside chance occasionally Kasich). But it is hard to imagine the number will be zero.

The Big Two (or Three, or Four)

There are four critical states that will likely determine if Trump can win on the 1st ballot: California, Florida, Texas and Ohio.


155 delegates (108 District, 44 At Large + 3 RNC)

Texas holds its primary on Super Tuesday, March 1st. There are several things that could happen in Texas with huge effects on the race.

If any candidate wins 50% or more of the votes, that candidate turns the state into a Winner Take All contest. It’s almost impossible to imagine Trump going over 50%, but it not impossible to imagine Ted Cruz doing so. If Cruz pulls that off, he’ll knock 56 delegates out of Trump’s reach.

Even if he doesn’t succeed in making the state Winner Take All he might suppress Trump enough to reduce his Maximum Trump delegate count in a meaningful amount.

I predict Cruz in particular may go “all in on Texas” the way he did in Iowa. Cruz is likely to keep whatever strength he has in the states where he’ll be competitive even if he spends most of his time in Texas. He already has a statewide political organization to get out the vote and he has all the power and prestige a Senator can muster in their home state. And he’s a “Favorite Son”.


99 delegates (81 District, 15 At Large + 3 RNC)

Florida holds its primary on March 15th and it is winner take all regardless of the winning margin.

With Jeb Bush out of the race, Florida is now prohibitively Rubio’s to lose. Trump has lead in the polls in Florida but Rubio can now focus his attention on Florida like Cruz is going to focus on Texas. If Trump shows weakness on Super Tuesday it could help reinforce the narrative that Rubio is the go-to candidate in a state that could see itself as deciding who the nominee will be (or ensuring that Trump doesn’t win the 1st ballot).

Rubio has a more challenging tightrope to walk than Cruz. He has to spend time campaigning outside of Florida for Super Tuesday and he will need to be getting strong 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the contests starting on Super Tuesday through the 15th to sustain his image as the “party favorite”. But the same factors that help Cruz in Texas will help Rubio in Florida. If Rubio can get Bush to stump for him the impact could become enormous.

If Cruz wins all in Texas and Rubio wins all in Florida, Trump will almost certainly be denied the 1st ballot nomination.


63 Delegates (48 District, 15 At Large + 3 RNC)

Ohio is Kasich Country. He’s a popular governor and is the ideal VP for everyone but Trump. Kasich is going to focus his campaign in the midwest and Ohio is his best shot at a win.

The Ohio primary is on the 15th of March as well so the same issues involving Trump’s strength or weakness from Super Tuesday are in play. Kasich almost certainly has the ability to stay in until Ohio and he could just contract his whole campaign to the Buckeye state to save money and increase focus.


172 Delegates (169 District, 10 At Large and 3 RNC)

California is one of the states that awards District and At Large delegates in separate Winner Take All contests. The California primary is the 7th of June. If Trump has not sewn up the nomination by the time California votes expect total chaos.

There’s a chance that an insurgent Rubio or Cruz could win the state and take 13 delegates from Trump. But weirdly that’s not a battle that is probably worth fighting.

What is worth fighting is a District-by-District campaign to deny Trump District victories. And given the high Latino population of California, plus the staunch Libertarian/Evangelical/Conservative enclaves, he could lose a lot of Districts to a Cruz/Rubio onslaught.

Even with Maximum Trump assumptions, Trump will not have the nomination in hand before California votes. He will have to contest the state vigorously to win and he’ll have to do it after grinding out months and months of “wins” that haven’t taken him over the magic number. The guy who is supposed to look invincible is perhaps not going to look so inevitable.

Puerto Rico

In any other election year, Puerto Rico would never matter in the calculus but this year it might. Puerto Rico has 23 Delegates, awarded proportionately to candidates that get more than 20% of the vote in their primary. It is not inconceivable that Trump gets blown completely out of Puerto Rico and gets nothing, as opposed to the 10 Delegates that Maximum Trump assumes he wins.

On the other hand Puerto Rico is a mess right now and needs financial relief. If Trump were to go to the island and suggest that he’d grease the skids to get them the relief they want it could trigger a tsunami of support and he could increase his share above his Maximum Trump 35% ceiling.

What Is Going On in the West?

Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, what the heck are you doing?

These three states have set themselves up as free agents in the Delegate system. Most of the time the way they’ve configured their allocations would be irrelevant. In 2016, they may have hit the jackpot.

The RNC has a rule for 2016 that if a state has a caucus or a primary that “preference vote” must be used to bind delegates to the national convention. These three states have violated the spirit, if not the letter of those rules and will essentially allocate their Delegates ad hoc and they can manipulate their own rules to send Delegates to the national convention that are effectively unbound to any candidate.

The worst of the three is North Dakota (28 delegates) who have left their Delegate assignment up to their state committee and on April 3rd, that committee will submit a list of Delegates to be ratified by the state convention. North Dakota could (and probably will) send all 28 delegates to the convention without any binding whatsoever.

Colorado will bind 21 Delegates from their 7 Districts on April 8th but will leave the 13 At Large and RNC Delegates unbound. And it is possible that some of the District delegates will be unbound as well, or pledged to candidates who have suspended their campaigns or are otherwise not valid at the convention so that those delegates are essentially free agents as well.

Finally Wyoming is going to do a lot of handwaving to provide the appearance of complying with the RNC rules but may do the same as North Dakota and Colorado and end up sending a slate of 29 effectively unbound Delegates to the convention following what may be inconclusive events on March 12th and April 14th.

The aftermath may be a bloc of 70 delegates that can be dangled in front of candidates in return for any deal on offer. And if Trump needs those 70 delegates he’ll likely offer whatever it will take to get them.

The End of Maximum Trump

Trump could loose his chance at a 1st ballot nomination at several junctures. If Cruz wins Texas outright and Rubio wins Florida, he’s probably done (even though mathematically he still could succeed, those two losses and the huge hit it would put in his needed Delegate count almost certainly mean that the press starts explaining why he likely won’t be the nominee and that will further drag down his numbers.)

The core assumption of Maximum Trump is that he has a floor at 35% as well as a ceiling. What if Trump drifts back to 30% and gives up ground to Cruz & Rubio?

At 30% Trump’s Delegate count drops to 1,453. His margin for a 1st ballot nomination becomes razor thin. Either a Cruz win in Texas or a Rubio win in Florida becomes a killer blow.

And if he ever falls behind Cruz or Rubio and they start winning Winner Take All states, he cannot win at all. If Trump’s numbers drop into the 25% range, or either Cruz or Rubio gets over 35%, his chances of a 1st ballot nomination are gone.

Rubio Rising

Two weeks ago Rubio was dismantled by Chris Christie who made him look programmed and unauthentic. Christie hammered home the point that first term Senators don’t have a track record of doing much and Rubio didn’t have a pre-Senate track record of much substance either.

The result was a sudden collapse for Rubio in New Hampshire (but Christie did himself no favors; his takedown of Rubio didn’t transfer any support to the New Jersey governor and he was out of the race the day after the primary). It looked like Rubio was fatally wounded — you can’t fix a lack of a record. But rising like a phoenix Rubio has come roaring back in South Carolina, racked up a number of high-profile endorsements and battled back to a 2nd place finish in the Palmetto State. He is a man with the wind at his back now and the question is how far can he rise and can the tactics Christie used against him work again? It’s hard for a man who has never held public office (Trump) or another first-term Senator (Cruz) to stick that blade in and make it hurt.

Cruz is likely in an even smaller box than Trump is. Cruz’ support nationally has never been over 20%. The prediction markets don’t like his chances of getting the nomination. His voters are well segmented and there aren’t a lot more of them to activate. In fact Maximum Trump’s model with Cruz at 26% may substantially overstate his long-term prospects.

Rubio however does not seem to have the same kind of box. He appeals to voters from across the spectrum and as the field consolidates I expect to see voters going to Rubio as their 2nd choice. If you’re not a Trump supporter today, you’re unlikely to become one tomorrow (which is why his box is so constricting). Cruz & Trump are each-other’s voters 2nd choice preference; they effectively cancel each other out so long as they’re both in the race.

I built a Rubio Rising analysis that assumes Rubio wins Florida (thus showing he’s got strength and that Trump has a weakness) and subsequently shifting Kasich’s support to Rubio on the theory that Kasich may suspend his campaign after Ohio no matter how well he does and most of his support will go to Rubio (especially if Kasich endorses him). I allocated 2% of Carson to Rubio and 3% to Cruz assuming Carson quits after the 15th as well and that Cruz is a better fit than Rubio for Carson’s supporters.

In this model, Rubio is drawing 36% to Trump’s 35% and suddenly Rubio, not Trump is winning the Winner Take All contests. Unfortunately for Rubio it comes too late to get him over the 1,236 Delegate threshold.

This sets up an incredibly interesting convention where nobody has a 1st ballot nomination, and two candidates have a pretty good claim on widespread support (and Cruz is something of a kingmaker).

The prediction markets have figured out how likely this scenario is and are now pricing a Rubio nomination almost at par with a Trump nomination. Cruz’ odds are now little better than Kasich’s.

What to Watch For

My first essay was derived from a need to understand the weird behavior of the campaigns up to and in South Carolina where they spent most of their time & money bashing everyone but Trump. Now it’s clear they were doing that because they don’t think Trump can win the nomination on the 1st ballot and they were more worried about a breakout from another campaign. Its unlikely now that will happen so I expect the campaigns to pivot on strategy rapidly.

After South Carolina, the three main campaigns have pretty clear objectives:


Trump has to convince more people to vote for him. He’s done everything he can to amplify his 35% base but he’s not getting more traction. In fact he got a smaller percentage of the vote in South Carolina than he did in New Hampshire. Trump benefits from the big distance between himself and Cruz & Rubio but from March 1st to March 15th people are going to see that doesn’t translate into an insurmountable lead in Delegates unless Trump can land some knockout blows. Trump needs to keep Cruz from winning Texas and Rubio from winning Florida. Watch for Trump to try some “stunts” in Texas (maybe at the border?) and in Florida (maybe with regard to Cuba?)


Cruz is the better fighter and has the stronger campaign between himself and Rubio. Unfortunately he’s hitched his wagon to the evangelicals and there aren’t enough of them to move him up in the standings. Cruz has to win Texas if he can. He has to try and put some distance between himself and Rubio. Expect to see Cruz attacking Rubio constantly now; there’s no point in worrying about Trump if Cruz can’t get out of his box. Cruz might also spend time in Arkansas and Tennessee which are close to Texas and have strong evangelical grassroots movements he can work with to try and get some wins on Super Tuesday.


Rubio wants to win Florida but doesn’t have to win Florida. If Rubio’s camp believes that they cannot win the nomination on the 1st ballot then their goal becomes keeping Trump from winning outright while staying close and looking like the sane, safe middle ground, and that is a different kind of campaign than a campaign that goes for all-or-nothing wins. Expect to see Rubio going after Trump aggressively. He may ignore Cruz but will have to respond to some of the dirt that Cruz will be throwing. Rubio may also pick a state or two on Super Tuesday and go for an outright win to build momentum for Florida. Because Georgia and Florida are neighbors Rubio could focus on Georgia without sacrificing reinforcing efforts in Florida. Rubio could get some benefits by picking off Georgia Districts from Trump even if he can’t win the state.


Next week the Republicans caucus in Nevada. Delegates are awarded proportionately. Trump leads by 15–20 points but Nevada is a very tough state to poll and the caucuses are notoriously unpredictable. The wildcard is a potential Romney endorsement. Nevada is home to a very large and very politically active Mormon community. If Romney endorses Rubio and the two barnstorm through the state the result could be an electrifying 1st place finish for Rubio to use as a springboard into Super Tuesday. On the other hand the population is very concentrated so that allows Trump to maximize the value of his huge celebrity to host big events and energize a state that has big economic issues and a lot of issues with the Latino community.

Final Thoughts

Maximum Trump has several simple core assumptions:

  • Trump doesn’t win more than 35% of statewide votes
  • Cruz & Rubio are consistently combining to win about 50% of statewide votes
  • Nobody scores knockout blows from the 1st to the 15th of March

Those assumptions are what you can watch over the next four weeks. The more closely actual results adhere to those assumptions the more valid Maximum Trump will be.

Keep an eye on Trump’s total Delegate count. Even if he wins Florida and Cruz doesn’t win Texas, if Trump has not accumulated around 760 Delegates by the 16th of March, he’ll be in trouble. If he’s closer to 700 than 750, he’ll be in real serious trouble and if Cruz took Texas and Rubio took Florida, you can probably assume there will be no 1st ballot nominee.