What to watch on Super Tuesday: Why the delegate math shows Haley has little room to stop Trump

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Former President Donald Trump enters Super Tuesday with a big delegate lead over former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the GOP presidential race — and by the end of the night, he will most likely find himself closing in on the magic number he needs to officially end the contest: 1,215 delegates.

Haley has won just one contest — the one in Washington, D.C. — and her reliance on a coalition that leans heavily on affluent, college-educated suburbanites (including non-Republicans who may simply see her as a vehicle to register disgust with Trump) faces two mighty Super Tuesday headwinds.

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First, numerous contests are in states with demographic profiles decidedly unfavorable to Haley but right in Trump’s white, working-class wheelhouse. And second, even where the demographics are Haley-friendly, party rules in many cases limit non-Republicans’ participation and all but require outright majorities to collect delegates.

While a strong showing in New Hampshire netted her a significant share of the state’s delegates, more states coming up this month have delegate rules like those in South Carolina, where 40% of the vote netted Haley just 6% of the state’s delegates. In other words, even relatively strong showings aren’t likely to translate into meaningful delegate hauls on Super Tuesday if she can’t win states outright. And if Haley can’t either broaden her coalition or supercharge friendly turnout, she’ll finish Tuesday buried beneath a Trump delegate avalanche.

To illustrate the scale of Haley’s challenge, we have looked closely at the demographics, participation rules and delegate allocation formulas for every GOP caucus and primary taking place Tuesday and in the next wave of contests March 12 and March 19. For each one, we have generated our best estimate of each candidate’s delegate ceiling and floor. These estimates are more art than science — but we will lay out our best explanation, reporting and analysis in each state.

There may be areas of disagreement in one state or another, but the broad conclusion is unavoidable: Unless Haley somehow finds a way to win outright majorities in multiple states, her campaign will be overwhelmed by the cold, hard realities of delegate math.

Keep reading for our state-by-state analysis of what’s on tap Super Tuesday — and see how yours compares with ours.

Super Tuesday

Alaska — 29 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 29, Haley 0

Haley best case: Trump 23, Haley 6

A caucus limited to registered Republicans is the worst set of conditions Haley could face, with a small universe of highly engaged core GOP voters holding sway. In 2016, the last contested Republican race, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won Alaska’s caucuses narrowly over Trump, with their combined share of the vote reaching 70%. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the 2016 candidate whose coalition most resembles Haley’s, took only 15%.

GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski did endorse Haley, but Haley’s real glimmer of hope here is that the 29 delegates are awarded proportionally — but only for candidates who clear a 13% threshold. That’s no guarantee given that Haley won’t have any independents or Democrats to lean on. But she’ll walk away with at least a handful of delegates if she clears that bar.

Alabama — 50 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 50, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

The state’s open primary allows Haley to tap into non-Republicans, including Trump-hostile voters who plan to vote for President Joe Biden in the fall. That should boost her share of the vote somewhat, but that kind of voter is in short supply in Alabama, and it’s not likely to matter in the delegate math.

Twenty-nine delegates are dished out based on the statewide result, and Trump can claim all of them with at least 50% of the vote. The rest are parceled out by congressional district, three apiece in each of the seven districts. Again, finishing with 50% of the vote in a district gives a candidate all three district delegates. While Haley can leverage the same rules that allowed her to carry one district and win three delegates in South Carolina, none of Alabama’s districts come close to fitting the unique demographic makeup that made that one South Carolina district fertile pro-Haley turf.

Arkansas — 40 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 39, Haley 1

Haley best case: N/A

The rules in this GOP primary are similar to those in many other Super Tuesday states, and they are likely to be an impenetrable barrier to Haley’s collecting more than a single delegate. Twenty-seven delegates are awarded based on the statewide result, with just a simple majority needed to gobble up all of them. A dozen more are divided equally among four congressional districts, but a candidate who wins a simple majority in one district wins all three delegates there.

Demographically, neither the state as a whole nor any individual district features anything approaching the mix that has powered Haley elsewhere, even in an open primary. She has leaned heavily on white, college-educated voters, while Trump has racked up massive margins in areas where white voters without four-year degrees predominate. And in Arkansas, that pro-Trump demographic reigns supreme.

However, any candidate who breaks 20% of the statewide vote wins a single delegate. Haley should be able to do that, but not much else. If you want to see a close race in Arkansas, you’re probably better off heading to Hot Springs to take in the action at Oaklawn Park.

California — 169 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 169, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

A gigantic, deep-blue state with large pockets of economically upscale, college-educated voters is, at first glance, a ripe target for Haley. But the state GOP’s rules make it all but impossible for her to win delegates.

First, it’s a closed primary — the huge chunk of independent voters who fit right into Haley’s demographic base can’t participate. Instead, the vastly smaller universe of registered Republicans, a group Trump has been winning by around 50 percentage points in primaries so far, will cast all of the ballots.

What’s more, the California GOP changed its allocation rules last year, scrapping a format that doled out most delegates by congressional district in favor of what effectively amounts to a winner-take-all primary based solely on the statewide result. As a result, all Trump has to do to claim all 169 delegates is win a simple majority of the vote. In a closed primary, that’s a pretty low bar for him to clear.

Colorado — 37 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 27, Haley 10

Haley best case: Trump 21, Haley 16

The variety of delegate outcomes here is limited, because all 39 delegates are awarded proportionally to candidates winning at least 20% of the vote. With independents participating (but Democrats not allowed to cross over) and the suburbs of Denver rich with college-educated, white-collar professionals, Haley can easily cross that threshold.

But just how high can she climb? Working in Haley’s favor is the state’s vote-by-mail system, under which independent voters were all sent Republican primary ballots. Will the ease of filling out ballots at home and dropping them in mailboxes mean more Haley-friendly/Trump-hostile independents participate? That’s Haley’s best hope.

Still, Haley capped out at 43% in New Hampshire under even more favorable demographic conditions. If she can hit 40%, it would probably be enough to grab 16 delegates. And if the mass independent participation she’s banking on fizzles and she just barely crosses the 20% line, her delegate haul would fall to about 10. Colorado’s delegate rules mean the practical difference between a 50-point Trump win and a 20-point Trump win just isn’t that much.

Maine — 20 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 20, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

Here’s another state where a candidate who breaks 50% wins every delegate. And Maine is far friendlier to Trump, who carried one of its two congressional districts in the 2016 and 2020 general elections, than any other New England state. Anchored by the old mill towns of Bangor and Lewiston and taking in a wide rural swath that contains one of the highest concentrations of white voters without college degrees in the country, Maine’s 2nd District is ideally suited to Trump, who should rack up massive margins there.

The rest of the state does include some well-to-do ZIP codes, especially along the southern coast, where Haley figures to score. But there are also plenty more blue-collar pockets for Trump to tap. Three times since 2010, the Republican electorate here has chosen Paul LePage, an inflammatory, Trump-style populist, as its nominee for governor. For Trump, attaining a simple majority should be no problem.

Massachusetts — 40 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 40, Haley 0

Haley best case: Haley 40, Trump 0

This is essentially a winner-take-all contest, with all 40 of the state’s delegates going to any candidate breaking 50% of the vote. And while it’s a stretch to float the possibility of Haley’s actually carrying Massachusetts, it should at least be mentioned, if only because of the extraordinary imbalance between the number of registered Republicans in the state (a mere 9% of the electorate) and the number of independents (60%) who can participate if they want.

Trump figures to clean up among that core group of registered Republicans — voters who turned strongly against the state’s Republican former governor, Charlie Baker, due in no small part to his outspoken criticism of Trump. Facing the prospect of defeat in his own party’s primary, Baker declined to seek a third term in 2022. Trump also easily won the state’s primary in 2016, claiming 49% of the vote, 31 points ahead of his nearest foe.

Still, there are those independents. With such a vast pool of them, including many Trump-phobic and college-educated suburbanites, there’s a slim chance that just enough of them see the GOP primary as an enticing opportunity to vote against Trump and come out for Haley. It would take a lot of them to offset Trump’s core Republican strength — but again, there are a lot of them.

That having been said, the scant GOP primary polling conducted in Massachusetts has shown Trump consistently over 50%. And according to the secretary of state’s office, the vast majority of the (many) vote-by-mail ballots received so far have been for the Democratic primary. To borrow a phrase from the state’s political past, it would take a “Massachusetts Miracle” for Haley to pull this off.

Minnesota — 39 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 39, Haley 0

Haley best case: Trump 17, Haley 14, 8 unbound

Complicated rules mean the Land of 10,000 Lakes has about 10,000 delegate scenarios. The 15 at-large and 24 congressional district delegates are awarded proportionally, but solely by the statewide results. A candidate can win all the state’s delegates with a statewide result above 80%. But short of that, things get tricky.

Finishing above 60% nets a candidate two delegates from each congressional district, and the second-place finisher gets the third delegate from each district, provided he or she wins at least 20% of the statewide vote.

If the winner falls somewhere below 60% statewide (or the second-place finisher falls below 20% with a winner below 80%), the state would send some unbound delegates to the Republican convention.

This is an open primary in which Rubio won and Trump placed third in 2016. So Haley’s expected to pick up some delegates here, even if a win is unlikely.

North Carolina — 74 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 60, Haley 14

Haley best case: Trump 55, Haley 19

Haley has a few things going for her in North Carolina. First, there’s no statewide winner-take-all threshold here, so Haley will net some delegates if she can eclipse 20%. Congressional delegates are awarded proportionally, too, as long as one candidate doesn’t break two-thirds of the vote. And independents can participate in the primary, as well.

A few demographically Haley-friendly metro areas — Raleigh-Durham-Cary and Charlotte — could allow her to pick up some delegates here. But the proportional rules mean there’s a ceiling, too, as North Carolina Republicans are largely on board with a Trump-friendly brand of politics. Trump’s preferred candidate for governor, Mark Robinson, has stoked controversy throughout his political career, and he is likely to lock up his nomination Tuesday, as well, in one of the most watched governor’s races this fall.

Oklahoma — 43 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 43, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

With the exception of that of Washington, D.C., closed primaries are Haley’s bane, with no independents or Democrats available for her to offset Trump’s overwhelming advantage among registered Republicans.

A simple majority is all that’s needed to claim all 28 statewide delegates, and the state’s five congressional districts also award three delegates apiece to the majority winners there. There is some real estate around Oklahoma City with Haley-friendly demographics, and under different rules, perhaps she’d be competitive in one district. But not in a closed primary system.

Tennessee: 58 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 58, Haley 0

Haley best case: Trump 44, Haley 14

Tennessee holds an open primary with a twist — voters don’t register by party, so they can technically vote in whatever primary they want, but a state law enacted last year requires polling places to inform voters it’s illegal to vote in a primary without being a “bona fide member” of that party. The law could dissuade non-Republican voters from crossing over, so the state’s results may not look like those of other states without party registration.

The statewide margin will be very important, as Tennessee will award all of its 31 at-large delegates to a candidate who eclipses two-thirds of the statewide vote. Otherwise, it will award those delegates proportionally. If Haley can perform here like she did in South Carolina, winning 40% of the vote, she’ll win a handful of delegates. But if her Tennessee margin is more like Michigan’s (27%), she risks getting blown out in terms of delegates. She also has to keep an eye on her lower threshold, as the state requires hitting the 20% mark to receive delegates.

Haley’s best-case scenario involves her keeping Trump under two-thirds and then snagging a delegate or two in the Nashville-area 5th District.

Texas: 161 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 155, Haley 6

Haley best case: Trump 146, Haley 15

While Texas has an open primary, the rightward shift of the state GOP electorate, as reflected in the intraparty civil war that has been brewing in recent years, suggests a majority of the statewide vote — and 36 of the state’s 47 at-large delegates — will be a lock for Trump. The remaining 11 will be awarded based on a vote at the party's convention, so those delegates may not be allocated yet (and could be subtracted from Trump's totals above). But if Trump wins a majority of the statewide vote, he'll be the heavy favorite to win those remaining delegates at the convention.

Then things get interesting in the 38 congressional districts, because each will award three delegates — two to a plurality winner, three to a majority winner — based on the results in each individual district. Texas is the largest state whose primary isn’t expected to function as a de facto winner-take-all contest. (See California and its rules above.)

The Texas rules give Haley a few opportunities around the major metropolitan areas, particularly in the highly educated 37th District in Austin and the 7th in the Houston area. But in a one-on-one race, she doesn’t have much room to grow past that.

Utah — 40 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 40, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

Caucuses haven’t been kind to Haley, putting her at an immediate disadvantage here. Independents do have the opportunity to participate if they show up and change their party registrations on site. But that requirement, along with the fact that voting in the caucuses will require attending a meeting at a fixed time, will surely cut into the number who actually take part.

It’s also true that Utah hasn’t been kind to Trump. Utah’s large Mormon population, typically a stalwart Republican group, proved remarkably resistant to him in 2016, when he finished third in the caucuses, 55 points behind Cruz in first place. That fall, Trump earned just 45% of the vote in Utah — still enough to win, but also the third-lowest share ever recorded by a GOP presidential candidate in the state’s history.

But that was then. While some have remained hostile to Trump, many other Republicans have made their way to his bandwagon. As president in 2020, Trump took 87% of the GOP primary vote even with a protest candidate — former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld — on the ballot. Trump’s most prominent Republican critic in the state, Sen. Mitt Romney, has seen his own standing with Republican voters erode.

As in many other Super Tuesday states, a simple majority is all Trump will need to gobble up all 40 delegates. And Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, who has refused to endorse Trump and urged his party to select a different candidate, says there’s “no doubt” Trump will achieve that.

Vermont — 17 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 17, Haley 0

Haley best case: Haley 17, Trump 0

Vermont may be Haley’s best shot at a Super Tuesday victory. The state has no party registration, meaning anyone can vote in the GOP primary, and it’s a deep-blue state with a unique, highly engaged political culture. At least in theory, there are hordes of anti-Trump voters here who don’t think of themselves as Republicans but could be motivated to vote in the GOP primary to express their profound distaste for him.

Haley’s chances rest on that. And she’s helped by the lack of drama on the Democratic side and the endorsement of the state’s moderate Republican governor, Phil Scott.

Scott is serving his fourth two-year term and has survived primary challenges thanks in no small part to the kind of crossover voters Haley needs. There also remains a strain of old school, middle-of-the-road Yankee Republicanism in quirky Vermont: In the 2016 GOP primary, John Kasich finished just 2 points behind Trump (who won with only 32%), and the combined vote share for Kasich and Rubio reached 50% — higher than in almost any other contest that year. Both candidates attracted the type of upscale, college-educated support that Haley has this year.

But while the ingredients for a potential Haley win are largely present, Trump does have his own strengths. For one, there’s a sizable population of working-class white voters without college degrees, his core demographic, particularly in the state’s Northeast Kingdom. Trump carried Essex County, the heart of that region, in both the 2016 and the 2020 elections — after it had twice voted for Barack Obama. Overall, 41% of white adults in the state have college degrees; that’s 6 points lower than in South Carolina’s 1st District, which Haley narrowly carried over Trump on Feb. 24. There’s also a University of New Hampshire poll that just last week put Trump ahead of Haley by 30 points in Vermont.

The rules here award all 17 delegates to anyone who can attain a simple majority. It’s very likely that either Trump or Haley will, though other candidates are on the ballot. In a tight race, it’s conceivable they could both fall short of the threshold, in which case delegates would be divided proportionally.

Virginia — 48 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 42, Haley 6

Haley best case: Haley 27, Trump 21

It would be easy to see how Haley’s victory in the Washington, D.C., primary would carry over to momentum in Northern Virginia, with significant blocs of Trump-resistant members of the professional working class. But there’s a lot more to Virginia beyond the Washington suburbs. Overall, the person who gets 50% or more, statewide and in each congressional district, will win the delegates in Virginia.

Haley was polling at 43% in the state in the most recent Roanoke College poll. In her best-case scenario, she can win the state. On the other hand, in 2016, Rubio and Kasich combined to pull in 42% of the state vote. And in 2024, it’s difficult to see Trump falling under the 50% threshold.

Beyond Super Tuesday

That’s the situation through Super Tuesday. But we have a bonus for loyal readers: Here’s our outlook through the next two weeks of the contest, when Trump could hit the magic number to become the presumptive nominee.

American Samoa: 9 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 9, Haley 0

Haley best case: Trump 0, Haley 0, unbound 9

This territory is holding a territorial caucus, which is typically good news for Trump.

But there’s an important wrinkle: The delegates aren’t always bound. Party rules say the delegates will be “instructed” by a caucus resolution as to the “disposition of their vote.” In 2016, the territorial delegates started off as unbound but ended up announcing they’d all back Trump by May.

The best case for Trump is that the nine delegates decide to back him like they did in 2016. Haley’s best bet is likely to be that they stay unbound — and that the caucus comes and goes without Trump’s getting any closer to the nomination.

Georgia: 59 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 52, Haley 7

Haley best case: Trump 43, Haley 16

Trump has had a rocky time in Georgia. He and his allies face charges there related to their attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and his preferred candidates lost primaries for governor, attorney general and secretary of state in 2022, as well as the general election for the U.S. Senate months later. The state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, remains popular despite having distanced himself from Trump.

An open primary in a state where Trump has that much baggage could give Haley an opening. But it would be tough to see her doing much better than her performance in South Carolina, where she won about 40%.

While 17 at-large delegates will be doled out proportionally to every candidate who hits 20%, the remaining 42 will be split up across congressional districts. And the candidate who wins 50% in a district will win all three delegates.

The demographics look best for Haley in the 4th, 5th and 6th districts in suburban Atlanta — Rubio and Kasich combined for over 50% of the vote in DeKalb and Fulton counties in 2016. But again, the best-case scenario for Haley is limiting damage, not winning the state.

Hawaii: 19 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 16, Haley 3

Haley best case: Trump 13, Haley 6

Another closed caucus gives the advantage to Trump. He won 42% of the caucus vote here in 2016, with Cruz winning 33%, while the more establishment Rubio and Kasich combined for 24%.

Expect Trump to get vote share about similar to what he and Cruz combined to get that year, as he continues to enjoy sky-high polling among Republicans, the only voters who get to participate here.

Mississippi: 40 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 40, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

On paper, an open primary could seem like good news for Haley. But the delegate rules leave her little room. A candidate who hits 50% statewide in Mississippi wins every delegate in the state, meaning the primary could be about as competitive as an early-season Ole Miss out-of-conference football game.

Washington: 43 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 40, Haley 3

Haley best case: N/A

In another closed primary, Trump is the heavy favorite to win the majority here, which would give him all 13 at-large delegates (assuming he eclipses 50% in the two-way race). The state awards its 30 congressional district delegates by similar rules, giving them out proportionally in each district unless a candidate eclipses 50% and wins all three from that district.

Washington’s 7th District, in Seattle, is the only one with significantly favorable demographics for Haley. A win here would net her three delegates, and that seems likely unless the bottom falls out.

Northern Mariana Islands: 9 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 9, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

Another closed caucus and another contest in which Haley’s underwater favorability with Republicans may put her out of contention.

Guam: 9 delegates

Trump and Haley best case: N/A

Guam is one of the few states sending unbound delegates to the convention, so they won’t be allocated to one candidate and will be free to vote as they wish on the convention floor. Individual delegates may have personal loyalties, but they won’t be locked in for one candidate.

Arizona: 43 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 43, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

There’s just no evidence that Haley can win a closed primary in a state whose Republican Party has shifted rightward, even as the state grows increasingly competitive in general elections. Primary voters who chose Republicans Kari Lake, Mark Finchem and Blake Masters in key races last cycle aren’t likely to back Haley in this winner-take-all race.

Florida: 125 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 125, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

It’s the same story in Florida, Trump’s adopted home. It’s hard to cobble together a path for anything else to happen except Trump’s winning it — just like he did in 2016 over Rubio, the home-state candidate.

Illinois: 64 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 61, Haley 3

Haley best case: Trump 51, Haley 13

This is effectively an open primary, but one Trump won in 2016, combining with Cruz for 69% of the vote. The winner here takes home all 13 at-large delegates, and then it gets complicated.

That’s because congressional district delegates get elected individually on the state’s primary ballot — the ballot includes individual names alongside the candidates they’ve said they’ll support. With so many permutations, an exact split is hard to predict. But Trump’s 39% finish here in 2016 netted him 78% of the delegates, so he doesn’t need to put up a big statewide number to win the vast majority of the delegates.

Kansas: 39 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 39, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

This is another (effectively) closed contest, as non-Republicans had to register with the party by Feb. 20 to participate in the primary. That spells bad news for Haley.

Ohio: 79 delegates

Trump best case: Trump 79, Haley 0

Haley best case: N/A

Ohio voters can participate in whichever party’s presidential primary they want — the only stipulation being that by doing so, they are registering with the party through that election cycle.

Kasich won the state’s primary in 2016 with 47% of the vote. But Haley will be hard-pressed to eclipse that in a one-on-one contest in a winner-take-all state — and especially in a state where she’s not the current governor, as Kasich was.

The big picture

Adding our best-case scenarios for Haley and Trump together, here’s our estimate of the rough range of possible outcomes in the delegate race through next week:

Trump’s best scenario has him just sneaking past the finish line only a week after Super Tuesday, with Haley adding only a few dozen stray delegates to her tally. But even under Haley’s best-case results, she would still fall miles behind Trump and delay his win by only a week or two. The Republican nominating system is designed to produce a quick and decisive winner, with few rewards for finishing second in most states — and it’s likely to work as designed over the next few weeks.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com