Politics & Policy

Super Tuesday Leaves GOP Two Endgames: Trump Nomination or Contested Convention

Donald Trump speaks to the media on Super Tuesday in Palm Beach, Florida, March 1, 2016. (John Moore/Getty)

It’s either Donald Trump or a contested convention.

Such is the reality facing the Republican party today. Its leaders are now staring down two scenarios they long dismissed as fantasy, after a slew of Super Tuesday contests demonstrated once again both the breadth of Trump’s support and the difficulty in unifying his opposition.

Trump didn’t win a clean sweep on Tuesday, as many predicted. But he carried a majority of the states that voted and widened his overall delegate lead, thanks in no small part to a still-fractured field that shows no sign of winnowing. Ted Cruz bounced back behind a powerhouse performance in Texas, stacking up three more wins and an impressive number of delegates. Marco Rubio and John Kasich, meanwhile, struggled to break through and may have prevented each other from toppling Trump in two separate elections.

All of the Trump-chasers, even Ben Carson, are now girding for what they see as a long slog to a contested convention. Their hope is that they can collectively deny Trump the victories he needs in upcoming winner-take-all states, stopping him short of the 1,237 delegates required to clinch the nomination and throwing the July convention into chaos.

Yet another outcome is just as likely — that some combination of Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Carson swipe so many votes from one another that Trump keeps notching victories with pluralities of somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, coasting to Cleveland as the party’s standard-bearer.

The saving grace for Trump’s enemies thus far has been proportionality; though he has won 10 of the first 15 states, his rivals remain within striking distance. As of early Wednesday morning, rough overall delegate allocations put Trump between 330 and 340, Cruz between 230 and 240, and Rubio between 110 and 120.

“If this were winner-take-all, it would be over,” a triumphant Trump told reporters Tuesday at his election-night event in Florida.

Party elders had been heartened in the pre–March 1 home stretch to see Trump finally put on the defensive by Rubio and Cruz and to see fresh signs of organized obstruction to the real-estate mogul’s ascent. They had hoped Tuesday would bring evidence that Trump’s appeal was abating and that the electorate was ready to rally around a single challenger to defeat him. They were disappointed on both fronts.

Trump dominated from the conservative Deep South to the moderate Northeast, winning seven of the eleven states that voted and padding his delegate lead in the process. Exit polls showed him performing well with both men and women, conservatives and moderates, Evangelicals and non-believers, the wealthy and low-income voters. He underperformed in several states, including Virginia, but still narrowly defeated Rubio there — largely because Kasich siphoned votes from Rubio in the commonwealth’s affluent, well-educated D.C. suburbs. (Rubio returned the favor in Vermont, peeling away just enough votes from Kasich to allow Trump to escape with a 1,400-vote victory.)

#share#Cruz, thought to be on the ropes after an unimpressive third-place finish in South Carolina, rode a tremendous showing in Texas right back into the spotlight. He won his home state by 17 points and, more strikingly, won 35 of its 36 congressional districts to offset most of Trump’s gains elsewhere on the night. Emboldened by a somewhat unexpected win in neighboring Oklahoma — and later, in the wee hours of the morning, a victory in Alaska — Cruz’s team worked quickly to frame a “two-man race.” In his election-night speech, Cruz himself asked Rubio, Kasich, and Carson, though not by name, to “prayerfully consider” ending their campaigns and rallying behind him against Trump.

Rubio, who had hoped for a Cruz collapse to accelerate his own head-to-head showdown with Trump, instead found himself pegged as Super Tuesday’s clear loser. Though he finally got in the win column by carrying Minnesota’s caucuses, the Florida senator missed key opportunities to accrue delegates and keep pace with Trump and Cruz. He failed to hit the 20-percent cutoff needed to win at-large delegates in Alabama, Vermont, and, most damagingly, Texas, the day’s biggest delegate prize, from which he walked away practically empty-handed. (Texas’s delegate allocation as of early Wednesday morning: Cruz 100, Trump 46, Rubio 6.)

Rubio was defiant in the face of Tuesday’s results, promising to win his native Florida and use it as a launching pad for his “underdog” candidacy. “I will campaign as long as it takes and wherever it takes to ensure that I am the next president of the United States,” he told supporters in Miami.

It’s increasingly unlikely that anyone except Trump will be capable of collecting 1,237 delegates before the July 18 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

With both Cruz and Rubio digging in for a long-term delegate fight, and Kasich similarly showing no sign of retreat — like Rubio’s, his home state holds a crucial, delegate-rich winner-take-all contest on March 15 — it’s increasingly unlikely that anyone except Trump will be capable of collecting 1,237 delegates before the July 18 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Cruz emerged from Tuesday second in the delegate race and best positioned, at least mathematically, to challenge Trump for the nomination. Notably, he rejected talk of a contested convention, using the occasion to present himself to Republicans as their last best hope to beat Trump. “We may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz,” said South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, one of Cruz’s chief critics, in an interview with CBS on Tuesday night.

But Cruz’s math is exceedingly difficult. If either Kasich or Rubio wins his home state on March 15, he will stay in the race, eyeing a contested convention and depriving Cruz of a one-on-one shot at Trump. And if both Rubio and Kasich lose their states, Trump will be the near-certain recipient of a combined 165 delegates — 99 from Florida, 66 from Ohio — making his nomination all but assured.

Rubio, who seemed on the ascent after resurrecting his campaign in South Carolina and running circles around Trump in last week’s Houston debate, tried hard to spin Tuesday into a loss for Cruz. He pointed out, correctly, that his fellow senator had staked his campaign to the South and called March 1 his “firewall.” Rubio’s team, once hoping to be rid of Cruz at night’s end, were reduced to arguing that the map gets worse for Cruz moving forward. That may be true as the race shifts to bigger, bluer states in late March and April. In the near term, however, the Texas senator takes his campaign next to a trio of red states (Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana) that vote this Saturday, and another two (Idaho and Mississippi) that vote on March 8.

Rubio claimed a moral victory in Virginia, which he lost to Trump by three percentage points after recent polls showed him trailing by double digits. Exit polls showed that a quarter of the state’s voters decided in the “last few days” whom to support, and Rubio won a clear plurality, 38 percent, of them. He predicted that momentum would carry over to Florida two weeks from now. But it’s a shaky bet, for this reason among others: Unlike Virginia, which has little absentee voting, more than 300,000 early votes have already been banked in Florida.

#related#As his competitors spun and shadowboxed, Trump carried himself Tuesday night like a man with the nomination already sewed up. In something resembling a White House press conference, Trump delivered short remarks on the evening’s developments and then casually fielded a host of questions. He emphasized his electability come November and spoke in the past tense of his triumph over the established order. “We have expanded the Republican party,” he said.

There’s a long road ahead to 1,237 delegates, but Trump has every reason to be confident. It’s true that he has a ceiling, with exit polls in several states on Tuesday showing that a majority of voters would be dissatisfied with his nomination. But it’s also true that, despite his ceiling, Trump continues to attract new voters, redefine political boundaries, and steamroll a splintered field with a broad coalition that cuts across ideological, demographic, and geographic lines.

Consider: Trump won Alabama with 43 percent of the vote, more than doubling the vote total of Cruz, the runner-up. He took 39 percent of the vote in both Georgia and Tennessee, besting Rubio and Cruz by comfortable double-digit margins in those states. These southern, conservative, Evangelical-heavy areas were once thought to be hostile to the bombastic, thrice-married Manhattan billionaire. Instead, Trump turned the Bible Belt into his personal political playground.

Now the race shifts to friendlier terrain for Trump. Come mid-March, the primaries will award delegates in chunks from states in the midwest, the mid-Atlantic, and the sun belt, with bigger, more-diverse electorates. After that, April sees the race move to Trump’s wheelhouse: the northeast. Tuesday’s result in Massachusetts previewed how tough Trump will be in his own backyard: He won 49 percent of the vote, beating Kasich, the next-closest finisher, by more than 30 points.

It may still be possible to prevent Trump from securing 1,237 delegates. But it’s now impossible to envision anyone else arriving in Cleveland as the Republican nominee.

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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