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How delegate math will shape the GOP race after Super Tuesday

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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Is it too late to stop Donald Trump?

Ever since the tinsel-haired mogul clobbered Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz last Tuesday in Nevada, increasing his delegate tally to 82 — nearly five times Rubio’s and Cruz’s current totals — every pundit, political junkie, and professional Republican in the country has been obsessing over the same question.

Now Super Tuesday is upon us. It is the most consequential day on the GOP primary calendar. Eleven states will vote to commit another 595 delegates — roughly a quarter of this year’s total. And Trump is poised to win more of them than anyone else.

By Wednesday morning, a lot of people will stop asking whether it’s too late to stop Donald Trump. Instead, they’ll think they know the answer: yes.

Don’t buy it — at least not yet. The truth is, Marco Rubio could still stop Trump. Ted Cruz could stop him, too. Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich could (theoretically) do it.

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Blocking the Donald from winning the Republican nomination isn’t impossible. But it will likely require one of his rivals to remain in the race until the GOP convention in July — and to pull off an upset of historic proportions.

To understand why Trump is in such a commanding position — but also why it’s too early to declare him the winner — you have to understand the byzantine delegate math that Republicans will be relying on to select this year’s nominee.

The rules are remarkably convoluted. They’re different in almost every state. And they’ve changed considerably from four years ago. But in a nominating contest unlike any we’ve seen before, they will be critical going forward.

Barring some sort of cataclysmic event that torpedoes the previously unsinkable Trump — a murder charge, perhaps — it appears that the Republican race can end only one of two ways at this point. Either (a) Trump wins the nomination or (b) one of his opponents snatches it away from him in Cleveland.

Let’s consider the likelier scenario first: a Trump victory.

To be the nominee, a Republican needs to win a majority of delegates; this year’s magic number is 1,237.

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A scoreboard reads “2016” and “76” for the number of delegates the state of Georgia has as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga., Monday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

You may have heard that all of the delegates at stake before March 15 will be awarded proportionally and that most of the delegates at stake after March 15 will be awarded to the candidate who wins each state.

This isn’t quite correct. In reality, the GOP primary map is a patchwork quilt of different delegate-allocation procedures. Some states, such as Virginia, do award their delegates in a proportional manner; they basically just figure out what percentage of the popular vote each candidate won and give that candidate the same percentage of the total delegates. Other states, such as Florida and Ohio, really are winner take all: Whoever gets a plurality of the popular vote automatically wins all the delegates.

But most states are somewhere in between, regardless of where they fall on the calendar. Some require a candidate to hit a threshold as high as 20 percent of the popular vote to win any delegates at all. Others are proportional until one candidate secures a majority of the popular vote, at which point they convert to winner take all. Others are winner take all by congressional district, which makes them more like “winner take most” at the statewide level. And still others, such as Colorado, will use their caucuses to choose delegates who are not immediately bound to any candidate in particular.

Confused yet? Don’t worry. It isn’t necessary to memorize every state’s allocation formula. The most important thing to know about the GOP’s wacky delegate rules is that they are biased toward winners. In other words, a Republican primary candidate can earn a fairly low percentage of the overall popular vote and still amass a majority of the delegates. He or she just needs to finish first in a lot of states.

This is very good news for Trump. Through the first four contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — he has won 32.7 percent of the popular vote. That’s hardly a commanding plurality. Yet because Trump finished first in three of those contests, his vote totals have been enough to secure him 65.6 percent of the delegates awarded to date.

Consider South Carolina. Trump didn’t just win statewide; he won every congressional district. As a result, he picked up all 50 Palmetto State delegates.

If Rubio, Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Kasich and Ben Carson remain in the race, splitting the other 60 or so percent of the popular vote among them, Trump could reach 1,237 delegates without ever persuading a majority of Republican primary voters to support him. In fact, according to one recent analysis, Trump would need only 39 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race with a second-place Rubio and a third-place Cruz — or 36 percent in a three-way race with a second-place Cruz and a third-place Rubio — to clear the 1,237 mark before the convention. That number sinks even lower if Kasich and Carson continue to campaign.

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz with his family at a rally in Dallas on Monday. (Photo: Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

It isn’t hard to see how Trump gets to 1,237. The race just has to keep going the way it’s gone so far. In Nevada — the first contest with only three major contenders — Trump won 45.9 percent of the vote. According to the forecasters at FiveThirtyEight, he currently has a 91 percent chance of winning Alabama on Super Tuesday; a 76 percent chance of winning Georgia; a 95 percent chance of winning Massachusetts; a 65 percent chance of winning Oklahoma; and a 72 percent chance of winning Virginia. He leads by nearly 20 percentage points in the latest Tennessee poll. Neuroscientist Sam Wang, who runs the respected Princeton Election Consortium, projects that Trump will win 31 percent of the popular vote on Super Tuesday — enough for him to collect 48 percent of the delegates.

“Combined with early-state delegates, Trump would [then] have a cumulative total of 369 out of 695 delegates, or 53 percent,” Wang writes. “So there is a very good chance that Donald Trump will end up with over 50 percent of cumulative delegates at the end of Tuesday night.”

The next big primary day, March 15, looks rosy for Trump as well: He leads by 19.5 points in Florida, 15.5 points in Illinois, 5 points in Ohio, and 10.3 points in North Carolina. And it may get even rosier if he meets or exceeds expectations on Super Tuesday. In short: The less things change, the more Trump benefits.

But what if things change?

What if, for instance, one (or more) of Trump’s rivals drop out?

The easiest way for this to happen is a home-state humiliation. If Cruz loses Texas on Tuesday — or if, two weeks later, Rubio loses Florida or Kasich loses Ohio — it would be nearly impossible for them to continue their candidacies. In that case, whoever is still campaigning against Trump — if anyone is still campaigning — stands to pick up a bunch of non-Trump voters.

The question then becomes whether the last man standing can attract enough non-Trump voters to reach the magic 1,237 mark.

Say Cruz tanks in the Lone Star State Tuesday and suspends his campaign — not likely, but certainly possible. According to the New York Times delegate calculator, Rubio would then need to win roughly 49 percent of the remaining popular vote to clinch the nomination (or 48 percent to stop from Trump from clinching it).

Cruz’s path is more challenging. Imagine Rubio chokes in Florida on March 15, then quits. Going forward, Cruz could pass Trump in the delegate count by winning 50 percent of the remaining popular vote. But even if he managed to boost that number to 60 percent, it wouldn’t be enough to get him to 1,237 before the convention.

As for Kasich, there’s no way for him to earn a majority of delegates, either. Assuming that Rubio loses Florida and Cruz loses Texas, his best chance would be to defeat Trump in Ohio, then go on to win enough of the remaining popular vote — about 49 percent — to keep Trump from clinching the nod.

If Trump hasn’t secured 1,237 delegates before the first official ballot in Cleveland, the GOP will hold what’s known as a “brokered convention” — the first since 1952. All committed delegates will be released. The horse-trading will begin. Another 437 unpledged “party regulars” will be able to throw their support behind whomever they want. After many rounds of voting, the party will be pick its nominee on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena.

This isn’t the likeliest scenario. But it isn’t unthinkable, even if no one withdraws anytime soon. For instance: It’s possible to imagine Rubio splitting the post-March 6 vote with Trump, 34 percent to 34 percent, while another 20 percent of Republicans — hardcore conservatives and committed evangelicals, perhaps — cling to Cruz. According to the Times calculator, these results would likely trigger a brokered convention.

Right now, Trump is the heavy favorite to represent the GOP at the polls this November, and he is likely to become an even heavier favorite after Super Tuesday.

But Trump hasn’t clinched the 2016 Republican primary yet. And he isn’t guaranteed to clinch it in the weeks and months ahead.

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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio greets supporters during a campaign stop at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., on Sunday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In the end, Republicans may decide that they are more terrified of the rebellion that would erupt if Trump were denied the nod in Cleveland than they are terrified of Trump himself: his ideological apostasy, his political dilettantism, his naked opportunism, the damage he would likely inflict on down-ticket Republicans this fall.

Or maybe not. Unless Trump arrives in Ohio with 1,237 delegates in tow, all bets are off.

As Rubio himself put it on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last weekend, “The rules are what they are in the Republican Party. You have to have X number of delegates in order to be the nominee. And if you don’t have those number of delegates, then there’s a process in place.”

“Here is what is never going to happen,” Rubio continued. “There’s never going to be a time where the Republican Party rallies around and says you have to get out or anyone has to get out for purposes of rallying around Donald Trump. And so we’re going to do whatever it takes. We will be in this race as long as it takes.”