We are now just hours from the biggest day in the GOP Primary: Super Tuesday. 11 states will be holding binding primaries or caucuses, primarily centered in the South, and 595 delegates are up for grabs. At this point, the base case has to be a Donald Trump romp. He clearly has the momentum and has proven to be quite strong in the South and Northeast where most of the primaries are being held. I would expect Trump to carry 9 or 10 states (Texas likely goes to Cruz, and Minnesota is a bit of a wild card). Given this outcome, Trump is the runaway frontrunner in the race (I’d give him a 70% chance at the nomination) with Senator Marco Rubio the best positioned of the rest to beat him. Below are details on Super Tuesday and five things to watch.
First, here is the list of states holding their primaries as well as minimum thresholds. These are important because while every state has a proportional allocation system, candidates must reach a certain share of the vote either statewide or in a congressional district to qualify for any delegates. For instance to win any of its statewide delegates in Texas, a candidate needs 20%. If he only gets 19%, he will fail to garner any delegates. If only one candidate meets the threshold, he would get all the delegates. In other words, proportional isn’t exactly proportional. With Cruz and Rubio polling around the minimum threshold in some states, their exact vote total could significantly sway the delegate count.
Based on my expected winners and assuming Kasich and Carson fall short of viability thresholds throughout much of the South, below is my expected delegate haul for each candidate. Note, these are rough estimates because making or missing a viability threshold could swing these numbers meaningfully. Relative to my baseline, the risk is to the upside for Rubio and Trump and to the downside for Cruz. I am still expecting a reasonable victory for Cruz in Texas, which explains his haul exceeding Rubio. Cruz is clearly losing altitude, and a loss in Texas or distant third place finishes in the South would leave him behind Rubio. If Trump can expand from the low-30%’s to the low-40%’s in some states, he could come closer to 275 delegates. Basically, I would expect Trump to have a 100+ delegate lead, somewhere around 40-45% of total delegates, with Cruz and Rubio in a close battle for second.
Now what to look for:
- It’s Trump’s Race to Lose
Trump is going to clean up on Tuesday with an outside chance at running the table. He will very likely carry at least 9 states, and 10 is my bet. After Tuesday, Trump will have a big delegate lead but will likely have only 25-30% on the delegates needed to be the nominee. That said, winning begets more winning as voters typically bandwagon to the winner. While he is divisive, Trump will enjoy some of this, and a romping will help Trump in future states. Winning Florida and Ohio would slam the door shut. Additionally, a romping could lead to a wave of endorsements as members of the political class aim to team up with a winner (a la Chris Christie). Some endorsements (possibly Rudy Giuliani or Florida Governor Rick Scott) could give him more momentum, and each endorsement makes him seem more acceptable to anti-Trump voters. Barring a really stunning turn of events, Trump will win big on Tuesday and will be in excellent shape to claim the nomination.
- Can Rubio Win Somewhere?
Much of the establishment is moving behind his bid, and he is the candidate best positioned to take on Trump at this point, though he is a distant underdog. At some point, Rubio needs to start winning states rather than merely rack up 2nd and 3rd place finishes. His firewall is Florida, but recent polls show him down double digits there. Losing Florida and its 99 delegates to Trump leaves him with no path to 1,237 delegates. The question is whether Rubio can come back in Florida without winning somewhere else first, and given recent polling, skepticism is merited. Rubio will not win many states on Tuesday, and Minnesota appears to be his best shot (though no one really knows with caucus turnout hard to predict). Elsewhere, Rubio should have a strong showing in Northern Virginia, though that is unlikely to be enough to carry the state. If he can’t win any states, his path does get narrower, and he will have to expend significant resources to take back FL and get on track. If he can beat Cruz throughout the South and take more delegates, Rubio may be able to get more anti-Trump voters to jump on board. The Rubio-Cruz battle for 2nd is one to watch. Rubio is best positioned among the non-Trump candidates but still faces a steep uphill climb.
- Can Cruz Stay Viable?
March 1 should be good for Cruz; the South is evangelical heavy, which is the base of his support. His home state of Texas is also the biggest delegate prize. If he can’t win on March 1, it is unclear where he could. Frankly to have a clear shot at the nomination, Cruz needs to be the delegate leader on Tuesday as the map gets worse for him thereafter. However, that’s just not going to happen after disappointing finishes in South Carolina and Nevada. He absolutely must win Texas to justify staying in, and I think that is likelier than not. It would be helpful to win another state with Arkansas or maybe Oklahoma his best shot, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Cruz will likely win TX and be shut out elsewhere, which is enough to merit sticking around but leaves him without a clear path to 1,237 delegates. His strategy would be one of accumulating delegates and playing in a contested convention, though there could be pressure to drop out and swing behind Rubio in an anti-Trump coalition. If he has more delegates than Rubio after Tuesday, would Cruz step aside though? I doubt it.
- Can Kasich Surprise in the Northeast?
Kasich is betting his campaign on winning Ohio and its 66 delegates on the 15th. If he carries Ohio while Rubio loses Florida the same day, he’d be the last viable candidate to face Trump (full disclosure: I’ve donated to the Kasich campaign). He is also looking to do well in Michigan the 8th to be a springboard into Ohio. However, much of the establishment is starting to coalesce around Rubio, so Kasich needs to notch some 2nd place finishes on Tuesday to stay in picture. Vermont and Massachusetts seem like the most likely places for that to happen. His message could also resonate in Northern Virginia and parts of Tennessee where he may be able to beat polls. Kasich is probably better positioned to win OH than Rubio is Florida, but he needs to stay in the conversation until then, which could prove difficult.
- Does Carson Drop Out?
Carson will not be President; that much became clear a long time ago. After Tuesday, I expect Carson will drop out. The best explanation for why Carson continues to run is that he wants to take votes away from Cruz (as payback for dirty tricks in Iowa), blocking him from 1st or 2nd place finishes in the South. After Tuesday, that goal will be complete, and his campaign will be running on fumes. Recognizing the inevitable, I would expect Carson to step aside.
So, that’s how I see Tuesday. Trump the clear frontrunner, Rubio best positioned to take him on, and Cruz losing altitude fast. Agree? Disagree? Let me know here or on Twitter!