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Donald Trump Would Be Easy To Stop Under Democratic Rules

The other Republican candidates’ chances of stopping Donald Trump look marginally better today than they did on Friday. Trump won just two of five contests over the weekend and only 30 percent of delegates. Trump remains the front-runner, however, having won 43 percent of the delegates overall among the 20 states and territories to have voted so far.

Although that’s short of a majority, Trump will have a chance to improve on his pace as the calendar turns toward states that have more aggressive delegate allocation methods — especially winner-take-all Florida and Ohio, which vote March 15. If Trump wins both states, he’ll have a good chance of eventually getting a delegate majority. If he loses both, we might be headed to a contested convention in Cleveland. And if Trump splits them — perhaps the most likely outcome based on where polls stand — we’ll continue to be on knife’s edge.

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The reason these details matter so much is because of how the GOP’s delegate rules are structured. If the Republican nomination were contested under Democratic delegate rules instead, Trump would find it almost impossible to get a majority of delegates, and a floor fight in Cleveland would already be all but inevitable. If every state awarded its delegates winner-take-all, conversely, Trump would be much further ahead, although the bigger swings these rules enable would give his opponents a chance to catch up later on. In the rest of this article, I’ll run the numbers on how many delegates Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would have won so far under three alternate sets of rules, including the two I just mentioned.

First, I’ll apply winner-take-all rules in every state.

Second, I’ll apply Democratic delegate rules. Unlike Republicans, Democrats have essentially the same rules from state to state. Specifically, their delegates are allocated proportionally, subject to a 15 percent qualifying threshold. Also, about 15 percent of Democratic delegates are superdelegates who will go to the convention unbound to any candidate.1 One complication I’ll ignore: States award some of their Democratic delegates by congressional district — some states’ Republican rules do this also — but this makes relatively little difference under proportional allocation, so my calculations are based on the statewide vote instead.

Third, I’ll apply what I call uniform Republican rules. This one requires a bit more explanation. Republican delegate rules vary quite a bit from state to state, ranging from being extremely proportional (as in, say, North Carolina) to strictly winner-take-all (in Arizona, for instance). Under my uniform rules, the allocation is the same in each state instead and is intended to reflect a compromise between proportional and winner-take-all methods. Specifically:

  • One-third of delegates in each state are awarded to the winning candidate. If the winning candidate gets more than 50 percent of the state’s vote, the bonus increases to half a state’s delegates.
  • Five percent of delegates in each state are unbound, essentially making them superdelegates.
  • The remaining delegates in each state are allocated proportionally, subject to a 15 percent minimum threshold.

These rules might seem arbitrary, but they’re meant to reflect a rough average or consensus of the methods Republicans are applying now. For instance, about 23 percent of Republican delegates are awarded winner-take-all by state2 and another 14 percent are winner-take-all by congressional district. That’s 37 percent total, close to my one-third winner-take-all bonus.3

Meanwhile, states where Republican delegates are awarded proportionally usually have a qualifying threshold, as Democrats do. The average threshold is about 15 percent, so that’s what my uniform rules apply. Furthermore, some of the proportional states become winner-take-all if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, although others don’t. Hence, my compromise rules award half of the delegates to any candidate winning with a majority of votes, plus whatever additional delegates he picks up from his proportional allocation.

Finally, although Republicans don’t have superdelegates in the same way that Democrats do, they will have some delegates go to the convention unbound. Specifically, the delegations from North Dakota, Wyoming and several territories won’t be bound to any candidate; also, some delegates selected in Pennsylvania’s “loophole primary” are technically unbound. These cases represent about 5 percent of Republican delegates or perhaps a bit more, depending on how you evaluate some ambiguous rules in West Virginia and other states.

Here’s how many delegates Trump would have under each allocation method:

TRUMP’S DELEGATE COUNT UNDER …
DATE STATE OR TERRITORY CURRENT RULES WINNER-TAKE-ALL RULES DEM. RULES UNIFORM GOP RULES
Feb. 1 Iowa 7 0 8 6
Feb. 9 New Hampshire 11 23 14 18
Feb. 20 South Carolina 50 50 18 30
Feb. 23 Nevada 14 30 13 19
March 1 Alabama 36 50 22 33
Alaska 11 0 9 7
Arkansas 16 40 13 22
Georgia 43 76 29 46
Massachusetts 22 42 21 29
Minnesota 8 0 8 6
Oklahoma 14 0 12 9
Tennessee 33 58 22 36
Texas 48 0 40 29
Vermont 8 16 6 9
Virginia 17 49 17 29
March 5 Kansas 9 0 9 7
Kentucky 17 46 17 27
Louisiana 18 46 20 30
Maine 9 0 8 6
March 6 Puerto Rico 0 0 0 0
Total 391 526 306 398
Share of all delegates 43% 58% 34% 44%
How Trump’s delegate total would change under different rules

Source: The GREEN PAPERS

Trump had 391 delegates as of Sunday evening, according to The Green Papers. Under my proposed uniform Republican rules, he’d have pretty much the same number of delegates, 398. In other words, so far Trump has neither been helped nor hurt much by the variation in delegate rules from state to state. States where Trump has benefited from more aggressive methods, such as South Carolina, have been offset by others like proportional Massachusetts.

But switching to Democratic rules would make a big difference. Between the highly proportional allocation method and the large number of superdelegates, Trump would have received only 306 delegates so far, more than any other candidate but still just 34 percent of the total. It would be hard for Trump to ever get a majority under these circumstances; he’d have to get at least 72 percent of the elected delegates from the remaining states, or he’d need help from superdelegates who might not be willing to provide it to him.

Conversely, if all Republican delegates were awarded winner-take-all, Trump would already have 526 delegates, or 58 percent of the total so far. He’d be in good shape for the nomination, although he’d still have to worry about another candidate like Cruz getting hot and winning most states in the second half of the calendar.

Speaking of which, here are the numbers for Cruz:

CRUZ’S DELEGATE COUNT UNDER …
DATE STATE OR TERRITORY CURRENT RULES WINNER-TAKE-ALL RULES DEM. RULES UNIFORM GOP RULES
Feb. 1 Iowa 8 30 9 17
Feb. 9 New Hampshire 3 0 0 0
Feb. 20 South Carolina 0 0 12 9
Feb. 23 Nevada 6 0 6 4
March 1 Alabama 13 0 11 8
Alaska 12 28 10 17
Arkansas 15 0 12 9
Georgia 17 0 18 13
Massachusetts 4 0 0 0
Minnesota 13 0 11 8
Oklahoma 16 43 14 24
Tennessee 16 0 14 10
Texas 104 155 65 99
Vermont 0 0 0 0
Virginia 8 0 8 6
March 5 Kansas 24 40 19 27
Kentucky 15 0 15 11
Louisiana 18 0 19 14
Maine 12 23 12 16
March 6 Puerto Rico 0 0 0 0
Total 304 319 255 292
Share of all delegates 34% 35% 28% 32%
How Cruz’s delegate total would change under different rules

Source: The GREEN PAPERS

Cruz’s total is somewhat indifferent to these rules changes. He’d have slightly more delegates under a winner-take-all system than he does now, but he’d also be much further behind Trump. As a corollary, although he’d have fewer delegates under Democratic rules, he’d be much closer to Trump.

Rubio’s delegate math is more sensitive to rules changes:

RUBIO’S DELEGATE COUNT UNDER …
DATE STATE OR TERRITORY CURRENT RULES WINNER-TAKE-ALL RULES DEM. RULES UNIFORM GOP RULES
Feb. 1 Iowa 7 0 8 6
Feb. 9 New Hampshire 2 0 0 0
Feb. 20 South Carolina 0 0 12 9
Feb. 23 Nevada 7 0 7 5
March 1 Alabama 1 0 9 7
Alaska 5 0 4 3
Arkansas 9 0 10 7
Georgia 16 0 18 13
Massachusetts 8 0 8 5
Minnesota 17 38 13 23
Oklahoma 13 0 11 8
Tennessee 9 0 12 9
Texas 3 0 27 19
Vermont 0 0 3 2
Virginia 16 0 16 12
March 5 Kansas 6 0 6 5
Kentucky 7 0 8 6
Louisiana 5 0 0 0
Maine 0 0 0 0
March 6 Puerto Rico 23 23 20 22
Total 154 61 192 161
Share of all delegates 17% 7% 21% 18%
How Rubio’s delegate total would change under different rules

Source: The GREEN PAPERS

Of course, winner-take-all would be awful for Rubio, who has won only Minnesota and Puerto Rico; together they’d give him just 7 percent of delegates. However, Democratic rules would be pretty good for him. He’d have 21 percent of delegates, not all that far behind Cruz’s 28 percent and Trump’s 34 percent, and with a chance to emerge as the nominee out of the highly probable contested convention.

Note how profoundly all of this would change the strategy for Republicans hoping to stop Trump. Under winner-take-all rules, it would be essential to winnow the field down to one main challenger, if it weren’t already too late. Under Democratic rules, the strategy would be for candidates to stay in the race instead, keeping Trump well short of a majority as everyone prepared for a contested convention. The Republicans’ actual rules are somewhere in between, making it hard to find the right approach.


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Footnotes

  1. Superdelegates frequently declare their candidate preference ahead of time, but they aren’t bound by it. ^
  2. Some states apply a hybrid method, awarding some of their delegates winner-take-all but not others. The 23 percent total includes winner-take-all delegates from these hybrid states, and not just delegates from states that are purely winner-take-all. ^
  3. I rounded down slightly from 37 percent because winner-take-all delegates by congressional district won’t always go to the same candidate in states with a lot of regional variation. ^

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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