I’m writing this post ahead of Super Tuesday, lest, in penning in it in the aftermath, I am accused of post-rationalization. So here goes, a little ahead of time: Super Tuesday is not the end of the Republican primary.
Shamefully, Donald Trump will do well tomorrow — perhaps very well. And when he does, the press will roar. And then, because human beings have a preference for simple narratives and dramatic headlines, the story will almost certainly be that the election is “over”; that Trump is “now the nominee”; and that anybody arguing otherwise is “kidding himself.” This is false, and Trump’s opponents should steel themselves to resist it. The Republican primary is not over until one of the candidates has won the requisite number of delegates. That is not going to happen tomorrow.
Suppose that Trump does as well as many think he will. In such a circumstance, the end result might look a little like this:
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) February 28, 2016
You will notice that, together, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would win more delegates than Trump tomorrow. Yes, in this scenario, Trump would come out of the contest with a lead. But it would not be an insurmountable lead, and we should not pretend otherwise.
Dan McLaughlin ran an alternative pro-Trump scenario and found that the delegate count could feasibly come out like this:
Even in a mostly pessimistic scenario, Trump is a long, long way from locking this up tomorrow (except vs Kasich). pic.twitter.com/vQVIDBhYxP
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) February 29, 2016
As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn explained well last week, the key point in the GOP primary season is not in fact tomorrow; it’s March 15:
The Republican delegate rules, relative to those for the Democrats, are biased toward candidates who win. That makes it very easy to imagine how Mr. Trump could sweep to the nomination over a divided field.
But that’s not so true before March 15, when party rules prevent states from apportioning their delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Most states wound up splitting their delegates, awarding a pool of at-large delegates proportionally by the percentage of the vote and awarding other delegates to the candidates who lead in each congressional district.
As a result, it will be difficult on Super Tuesday for Mr. Trump to amass a significant majority of delegates if the other two major candidates — Mr. Rubio and Ted Cruz — clear the thresholds (at highest 20 percent) for earning proportional delegates. It seemed quite possible a few weeks ago that Mr. Trump could build a big lead on Super Tuesday, but Jeb Bush’s exit from the race and the big bump in Mr. Rubio’s poll numbers make it far less likely that Mr. Trump can pull that off.
Now, if the field does not consolidate in one direction or another after tomorrow — and if either Rubio or Cruz are unable to mount a serious challenge on March 15 — it will be all-but-over by St. Patrick’s Day. (Although I would recommend that the remaining candidates chase Trump all the way to the convention.) But that hasn’t happened yet — and it won’t have happened by Wednesday morning. Nil desperandum — not yet at least.