Election 2016: The Long and Uncertain Path to a Trump Victory

After his victory in New Hampshire, Donald Trump has shown that he is a real contender for the Republican Party’s nomination. Prediction markets, in which consumers can place bids on who will win the nomination, had soured on Trump following his setback in Iowa. But right now on Predict It, Trump’s shares are worth twice as much as the next candidate’s shares. Even so, Trump is anything but a sure thing. With the Republican Party rules on proportional allocation of delegates along with so many candidates in the race, it will be a long uphill slog for any candidate to get the requisite number of delegates and prevent a brokered convention.

To win the Republican nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates. Right now, Trump has 17 delegates, Cruz has 10, and Rubio has 7. The South Carolina and Nevada contests have 80 delegates up for grabs. Per Republican Party rules, delegates are allocated proportionally until March 15th. So Trump can win only a proportion of the 80 delegates. On March 1st, candidates compete for 653 delegates as 14 states hold their contests all on a single day—the largest single delegate haul in the campaign. With delegates being allocated proportionally, Trump could win a couple hundred delegates, but he still will most likely have less than 500 delegates at this point.  

More generally, the challenge for Trump is that there are not a whole lot of states that allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis—and at least some of those states could be taken by his rivals. For example, two of the biggest winner-take-all states are Florida and Ohio in mid-March, where the survivors of the Rubio-Bush-Kasich battle for the so-called “establishment lane” might have a real shot. If Trump continues to win about 35%-40% of the vote, that will allow him to amass a strong delegate total—even as the race narrows—but could still leave him well short of the needed majority unless he is able to win several winner-take-all contests.

At the same time, it is not at all clear that any of Trump’s challengers will be in a position to amass that kind of majority either.  In the best case for the establishment, either Bush, Rubio, or Kasich will emerge soon as the clear alternative to Trump and the other two will drop out.  But even once that happens, the establishment will still have to contend with both Trump and the well-funded Ted Cruz.  Again, in such a three-person race, it is not easy to come up with a formula for 1,237 delegates for any one candidate given the heavy reliance on proportional delegate allocation across states.  Plus, unlike the Democratic party, the Republican party does not have a large cadre of superdelegates who can tilt the balance toward the establishment candidate. Instead, the GOP has 168 unbound delegates, likely too few to make a substantial difference.

So, there is some possibility that Trump will head to the convention with the most delegates but not a majority. Political scientists usually dismiss statements about a brokered convention as the phantom of journalists’ dreams. But it may just happen this time. And if it does, it could be a real mess. If party leaders deny Trump the nomination, they risk him bolting and running as a third party candidate. Hold on to your seats, the rest of the primary season will be a wild ride.

Terri Bimes is the Assistant Director for Research at IGS, and teaches classes on the presidency.

Photo by Flickr user PBS NewsHour