March Madness in the GOP Primary

About halfway through Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, young Alice found herself asking for directions from a large, grinning cat that instantly appeared and disappeared into thin air. The Cheshire Cat advised Alice that one direction led her to a Hatter, while another took her to the home of a March Hare. “Visit either you like,” the Cat offered, “they’re both mad.” Astonished at the place at which she has arrived, Alice inquired how that could be. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “We’re all mad here.”

Much like Wonderland, the Republican presidential primaries are a crazed venue no matter which way one turns, and tomorrow the Republican Party follows the road toward its own March Madness. When the Republican National Committee finalized its nominating rules and the various states finished arranging themselves on the 2016 calendar, many in the party believed that the month’s crowded primary schedule would resemble the NCAA college basketball tournament sharing that moniker. They sought fevered intensity leading to swift finality. But the March tournament is mad with excitement—sixty-three games in three long weekends where the unexpected is routine. The Republican primary, however, is far more like the March Hare’s mad tea party, where guests move one seat to the left every few minutes. There is constant motion but without purpose, and seemingly no end to the predictable madness until the sane withdraw. Now, the packed March primary schedule places new urgency on Republicans desperate to stop Donald Trump. Under the old system, there would still be plenty of time. In 2016, if Trump’s top challengers fail to reach certain vote thresholds over the next two weeks, no amount of candidate-winnowing or new lines of attack will be able to reverse Trump’s march to the GOP nomination.

The Republican Party’s primary schedule was intended to prevent the stumbling finish suffered by its 2012 nominee. That year, Mitt Romney quickly seized pole position in the nomination fight by winning New Hampshire and Florida and solidifying party support. The elongated schedule and proportional allocation of delegates, however, afforded former Senator Rick Santorum enough time to regroup and deal Romney a series of futile but embarrassing defeats in states from Colorado to Mississippi. Thus, at the GOP convention that year, the party apparatus tweaked the rules for 2016 to compress the nominating calendar’s length and to encourage states to weight their delegate prizes in favor of the winners of their respective elections. Following those decisions, a flood of states scheduled their nominating contests in March, and many adopted delegate apportionment rules giving even narrow plurality winners huge advantages. This movement occurred to such a significant effect that nearly 55% of all delegates in the February through June process will be awarded in March. Even more remarkably, the vast majority of those delegates will be at stake in a two-week stretch at the beginning of the month, from March 1st through March 15th.

This plan seemed well and good until a loudmouth real estate celebrity named Donald Trump upended the race and emerged from the traditional early states as the delegate leader. While the Republican Party itself is undoubtedly desperate to defeat Trump, the party’s fractious nature combined with the calendar party leaders themselves concocted make it more difficult to do so. First, as the Nevada Caucuses made clear, if the race maintains its current dynamic, the results will remain the same. The partygoers may want to move on and shift one state over, but unless the fundamental nature of the action changes, Trump will keep winning.

The problem, of course, is that the remaining candidates are such an uninspiring lot. Ted Cruz continues to say he “likes” Donald Trump even as Trump utterly savages his integrity while Cruz does his best to undermine it himself. Cruz remains a factional candidate, one strong enough to hold onto a solid chunk of rock-ribbed conservatives, but despised by party regulars and thus unlikely to unify the anti-Trump constituencies. Marco Rubio continues his utterly baffling strategy of parroting mindless talking points while lacking the urgency (until very recently) to take on Trump. Rubio really is the Party’s only hope, which makes all the stranger his contentment to simply stand on the street corner selling his knock-off brand of hope and change. Meanwhile, John Kasich and Ben Carson cling to their hopelessly delusional paths to victory, siphoning critical supporters from Rubio and Cruz, respectively. Sadly for the GOP, they’re all mad here.

Second, the compressed and delegate-weighted calendar means that by the time Trump’s challengers have reconfigured the race, he may have accumulated a large enough delegate lead that even a string of losses in April, May, and June may not be enough to stop him. The nominating contest timeline is so crucial because Trump remains a highly unusual frontrunner. No Republican has ever lost the nomination after winning both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Trump won both by double-digits. Yet, no Republican frontrunner has run so explicitly against his own party, both ideologically and personally. Consequently, Trump remains in the rather unprecedented place of winning commanding victories despite possessing sky-high unfavorable ratings and overwhelmingly losing late-deciding voters. Normally, a series of early wins crowns a nominee because a party’s voters generally like all of the candidates and will rally behind the one who is winning. That clearly is not going to happen here. And so, if Trump is in trouble when he finally faces a Rubio alone and unfettered, his ability to effectively end the race before that happens is of momentous importance.

Below is a summary analysis of the March Republican Primary calendar. Its purpose is to provide a rough approximation of the delegate math should the race remain static through early March, with Kasich and Carson fighting on and Cruz and Rubio distracted and divided. First, a brief word and warning about the table below. This is an extremely streamlined and simplified analysis. Each of the last three columns contains a significant distillation of the byzantine delegate allocation rules of each state. The fine print and dirty details are listed in granular fashion at Frontloading HQ and The Green Papers.

The first three columns in the table list the date and number of delegates at stake for each March primary and caucus. The final column, referring to the percent delegates allocated by date, simply adds up the cumulative number of delegates awarded through and including the date of each contest. Through today, for example, the 133 delegates awarded from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada amount to 5.38% of the total delegates from the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the various territories. The table picks up the tally from there, showing for example that after Super Tuesday 29.45% of all delegates will have been awarded (the calculation here is slightly different from the one listed at The Green Papers because it removes Wyoming and Missouri’s delegates. Those states vote in March but the results of the presidential preference votes are non-binding; delegates will instead be chosen by county conventions).

Delegates

The threshold percentage for delegates refers to the percentage of a state’s vote needed to receive any delegates. For instance, Alaska requires a candidate to receive at least 13% of the vote in order to receive any delegates, but otherwise allocates its delegates proportionally among all candidates who reach this threshold. These are critical levels to keep in mind, as the difference between attaining the threshold amount and falling a mere percentage point under it can be massive. More importantly for these purposes, the higher the qualifying threshold, the more weighted the contest is toward the top finishers. For example, if the Georgia Primary results in a Trump 35%, Cruz 25%, Rubio 19% finish, Rubio would receive zero delegates while Trump and Cruz would split the prize 58%-42% (you reach these numbers by dividing their vote total by the denominator of 60%—the vote percentage of only the qualifying candidates).

Thus, the “Likely Distribution” column denotes how a state’s delegate allocation rules are likely to manifest themselves given the current state of play. For “proportional” states, all candidates who meet the given threshold receive roughly their percentage’s share of the delegates. Of course, the higher the threshold, the greater the benefit to those reaching it, which is why many of the states listed here as proportional have low threshold percentages (leading to delegate counts closely reflecting the actual voting). The “winner-weighted” states—highlighted here in yellow—are a collection of primaries where various differing rules lead to the winner receiving a larger share of the delegates then their vote percentage would suggest. Finally, “plurality winner” states—highlighted in orange—are just that; in a handful of contests, the winner—no matter how small the margin—receives all of that state’s delegates (the Pacific Islands are listed as “chaos” because party leaders largely determine who receives those territories’ delegates).

Again, this grossly oversimplified analysis fails to account for the myriad ways that state primaries and caucuses can differ. Of note, many states have decreasing threshold amounts should no one reach that level. Many states also have higher thresholds (usually 50%), which, if reached, grant the majority winner all of the state’s delegates. Still other states turn into winner-take-all contests if only one candidate hits the threshold requirement. Moreover, most states award delegates both at the state and congressional district level, which means that candidates must hit threshold levels in a particular congressional district to get any of the delegates assigned to it. Therefore, the chart ignores many of the unique rules that will effect delegate allocation at the margins, assumes it is unlikely that Trump would win an outright majority in more than one or two states (if any), and ignores differences between a candidate’s statewide share of the vote and his support in a particular congressional district as unlikely to make a large-scale difference.

Caveats aside, the chart demonstrates the big picture: a stunning number of delegates are awarded in early March and the states that give particularly large advantages to the winning candidate are largely clustered in Southern states favorable to Trump. In other words, the chart reveals just how important it is for Cruz and Rubio to limit the damage in early March. Yes, Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all contests two weeks from tomorrow. Yet, even if Trump’s challengers are able to reverse the current polling trend and win those states, Trump may still have an overwhelming lead due to his dominance in “winner-weighted” Southern states on March 1st. Other states where Rubio and/or Cruz are expected to do much better allocate their delegates in a more egalitarian way, meaning that even surprising wins in Kansas and Kentucky on March 5th, for instance, will not meaningful diminish potential Trump delegate routes in the South on Super Tuesday. As South Carolina’s primary showed, the consequences can be enormous; Trump took home all of the state’s 50 delegates there despite winning only 32.5% of the vote. Simply put, if either Cruz or Rubio fails to meet the 15% or 20% thresholds in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, Trump could build an insurmountable delegate lead.

Two basic scenarios on March 1st, then, will determine the trajectory of the race. If Cruz wins his home state of Texas and he and Rubio are able to meet delegate thresholds throughout the South, that showing would be enough to allow Rubio or Cruz to catch up if the race’s fundamental nature changes later. A rough, back-of-the-napkin estimate using the current polling averages of the four non-Texas winner-weighted March 1st primaries shows that Trump could win around 126 delegates out of a possible 224 (or 56%) by winning only 35% of the actual vote. Contrary to the perception in some quarters, a Super Tuesday that looks like this would significantly slow the Trump march to victory.

The danger for the Stop Trump contingent is if, as seems quite possible at this point, Cruz fails to meet the 20% thresholds in Tennessee and Alabama and Rubio fails to reach that mark in Texas. Then the weighted delegate totals move even more dramatically upward. A worst-case scenario would also have both Rubio and Cruz miss the 20% threshold in Georgia (they are both polling at about 21% right now). Trump would then sweep all 76 of the Peach State’s delegates. If Trump wins 40% in the four non-Texas Southern March 1st states and finishes a strong second to Cruz in Texas while Rubio falls below 20% there, those five states alone could lead to the following approximate results: Trump winning 223 of 379 delegates, with Cruz and Rubio splitting the rest 105 to 51, respectively, due to Cruz’s win in Texas and Rubio’s strength everywhere else. That would mean even Rubio victories in Florida and Ohio would not erase Trump’s Super Tuesday dominance, and that the Florida Senator’s path to winning a majority of delegates outright before the convention would be extremely narrow.

Thus, if Trump has an exceptionally good night in the South tomorrow and continues to win states for another week or two, the Republicans’ only chance to stop him would be denying him an outright majority by June, and then wresting the nomination away from him during a contested convention in July. Relying on that prospect is, to put it mildly, pure madness. The bottom line is that Rubio and Cruz need to hit delegate thresholds in every state on Tuesday to keep within striking distance in the next two weeks. Then, at some point, they’ll have to actually start winning. Staying above the fray and refusing to engage Trump strongly is a death wish. At this point, they are committed. As the Cheshire Cat might say to them, as it did to Alice when she enquired why it thought that she, too, was mad: “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

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