In his victory speech in South Carolina, Donald Trump vowed to sweep the twelve primaries held on Super Tuesday, March 1, and implied the race would then be over: “Let’s put this thing away!”
He also belittled rivals who claimed that as the field shrinks, they will be able to close on Trump and deny him the nomination. “They’re geniuses!” he mocked. “They don’t understand that as people drop out, I’m going to get a lot of those votes also.”
Trump is the front-runner, but he has to find a way to win a majority of the delegates, and the kind of campaign he’s running is making it harder for him to crack a ceiling of about a third of the vote. In the run-up to South Carolina, Trump came out in favor of the health-care mandate, defended Planned Parenthood, accused George W. Bush of lying about the Iraq War, and stood by his call to impeach Bush. (He later retreated on the mandate and on Bush’s supposedly lying.) His consistent inconsistency helps explain why only four in ten GOP voters in a new Associated Press poll view Trump in a positive light. He will have trouble growing his coalition to win a majority of delegates, even as more candidates drop out.
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Sources close to Trump say that as the front-runner, he stands to clean up in states with winner-take-all rules. That will propel him to the nomination, they believe. But not a single state is winner-take-all until Florida (99 delegates) and Ohio (66 delegates) vote on March 15. With Jeb Bush’s dropping out, Marco Rubio probably has an advantage over Trump in his home state, as does John Kasich in Ohio. Kasich is likely to stay in the race in hopes he can use his delegates to become a power broker at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. After Florida and Ohio, there are only seven other states that are winner-take-all, making it all the harder for an early nominee to emerge before the convention.
The calendar and the way the state contests are organized basically mean that in order to win a majority of delegates by the beginning of June, a single candidate would have to have won more than 45 percent of the popular vote. GOP lawyer Ben Ginsburg, who has worked in every presidential campaign cycle since 1988, recently observed that the 2016 calendar “quite deliberately avoids having a mid-March nominee.” As he outlined this week in Politico:
The 2016 rules are much the same as the ones that dragged out Romney’s victory, but the circumstances of the race all point to a longer, harder fight. Traditionally, the Republican nominee is known when more than 68 percent of the delegates have been chosen, which won’t happen until April 19 this year.
Ginsburg noted that it will be very hard for any one candidate to “run the table” during the primaries in the first half of March. The difficulty of any candidate’s doing so well after that is also slim. This means we might be looking at a contested convention in which delegates are bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to — but only on the first ballot.
Even diehard believers in the Power of Trump have to use strained reasoning to give Trump a majority of delegates at the end of the primaries.So if we are headed for a contested convention, what will happen? I don’t know, but I do know that Republican delegates will be leery of nominating a candidate viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of general-election voters – as is the case with Donald Trump. In the RealClearPolitics average of all polls, Trump is the only major candidate who loses to Hillary Clinton (45.3 percent to 42.5 percent). It’s certainly possible that Trump will try to “cut a deal” with Ted Cruz or John Kasich so he can secure a delegate majority, but there are a lot of obstacles to that.
No one is saying Trump won’t be the nominee. But reports of his inevitability are greatly exaggerated.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.