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Stopping the Unstoppable

February 22, 2016

Republican caucus and primary voters have thus far selected 104 convention delegates, and tomorrow Nevada Republicans will pick 30 more. A week from tomorrow, Republicans in 12 states will select 724 delegates – more than five times as many as before then.

Of the 12 states voting on March 1, FiveThirtyEight.com has enough data to track only four – 538 gives Florida Senator Marco Rubio the slightest of edges over Donald Trump in Georgia and a more distinct advantage over Trump in Virginia; Texas Senator Ted Cruz holds an unsurprising lead over Trump in Texas; and Trump holds a small lead in Oklahoma.

In addition, RealClearPolitics.com shows Cruz ahead in polling in Arkansas, Rubio ahead in Minnesota, and Trump ahead in Massachusetts. RealClearPolitics shows no polling at all for Vermont and Wyoming, and no polling from this year in Alabama and Tennessee. RCP shows a single 2016 poll for Alaska, showing Trump four points ahead of Cruz in early January.

This is not my idea of an unstoppable force.

There is a twist – ten of the 12 March 1 states, by contrast with three of the four early states, have voting thresholds. In other words, in those ten states, a candidate must win a specified minimum share of the vote to be eligible for delegates. The candidates whose popular vote totals exceed a state’s threshold divide up the state’s delegates in proportion to their share of the vote. By stiffing the lagging candidates, thresholds are intended to winnow the field to maybe two or three candidates.

In five of the March 1 states, the threshold is a relatively high 20 percent of the vote. Five other states impose thresholds varying from five percent to 15 percent of the vote. Given where Ohio Governor John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson stand in polling relative to the thresholds, there is a substantial possibility that neither one will win more than a handful of the 724 delegates at stake on March 1. This will focus attention on the three leading candidates.

Cruz and Rubio each seems to think that his path to the nomination lies in eliminating the other and becoming the remaining alternative to Trump. That strategy could work for Rubio, but I’m not so sure if it could work for Cruz.

But in a three-person race, there’s another option: Cruz and Rubio both remain in the race and do well enough to deprive Trump of a majority of the delegates. If Cruz continues to win among evangelicals and the hard Right and Rubio maintains or enhances his standing among more moderate Republicans, they can deny Trump a majority.

This is plausible partly because, in the three states to vote so far, Trump took 35 percent, 33 percent, and 24 percent of the vote. He is polling nationally at 34.2 percent, and his RealClearPolitics average has not cracked 37 percent at any point in the entire campaign. Trump consistently polls with very high negatives, and consistently does poorly as a “second choice” candidate. He has, in the phrase of the punditocracy, a “low ceiling,” and it is plausible that his poll numbers will grow very little as the field narrows. In particular it seems unlikely that the Jeb Bush vote will shift to the Trump column, and in general.

In this scenario, Rubio and Cruz need each other: Rubio needs Cruz to win in Alaska, Arkansas, Texas, and Wyoming, and Cruz needs Rubio to win in Georgia, Minnesota and Virginia. Bonus points if Cruz or Rubio wins in Tennessee or Alabama. That would leave Trump with Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Vermont.

As we saw after Iowa, Donald Trump doesn’t lose well. If he were to lose not just one state on March 1, but a handful, maybe even a majority of them, no one really knows how he would react.

 

 

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