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How Will Tonight’s Primaries Affect The Presidential Race?

For this week’s politics Slack chat, we consider what the Republican and Democratic races might look like Wednesday morning, depending on what voters do in Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina today.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today may (will?) end up being the most pivotal day of the 2016 primaries. So, let’s define the range of possible outcomes. Can Donald Trump become the presumptive GOP nominee? Can Clinton become the presumptive Democratic nominee?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Isn’t Clinton already the presumptive Democratic nominee? Presumptive not meaning 100 percent, but in the range where something would have to go seriously wrong for her to miss out on the nomination.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): That’s really presumptive of you to say, Nate. But also probably accurate. I don’t necessarily think that this is the day that Trump becomes the assumed GOP nominee, though. I think the Ohio question is too big to ignore.

micah: What if he goes 5-for-5?

clare.malone: Well, then …

natesilver: Just a bit more context first. Clinton has won 58 percent of the pledged delegates so far, to say nothing of her advantage among superdelegates. By contrast, Trump has won 43 percent of delegates so far, and is opposed by party elites. I’m skeptical elites would deny Trump the nomination if he had a substantial plurality of delegates, but Trump and Clinton still come into the evening in rather dramatically different positions.

If Trump went 5-for-5, though? Yeah, that’d be huge for him. It would make it very hard for anyone else to get a plurality of delegates. It would take us to the endgame of the race. Trump would be a heavy favorite. But I’d stop a little short of calling him the presumptive nominee. We’d still have to see how a one-on-one race between Trump and (presumably) Cruz played out, and also to what lengths the party would go to try to deny Trump the nomination at the convention.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): If Trump wins all five states tonight, I think he will be very difficult to stop. The press will be tremendous for him. He’ll accumulate a lot of delegates. Sure, he could be stopped, but it’ll be quite hard to do so.

natesilver: The inevitability narrative will be intense, yeah. Especially on CNN and other networks, which tend to take ambiguous results as Great News For Trump! If he actually has a good night, they’re going to be positively euphoric.

micah: All right, so let’s say Clinton is already the presumptive nominee, what would Sanders need today to reverse that?

harry: I think Sanders would need to come within 10 percentage points in North Carolina and Florida.

micah: And win Illinois, Ohio and Missouri?

harry: Well, yeah. I think it’s difficult to understate Clinton’s delegate lead right now. I’m talking pledged delegates, not superdelegates.

natesilver: Yeah. Let’s remember that for all the talk about Sanders’s amazing upset in Michigan, he still only matched his delegate target there, while losing ground relative to his target in Mississippi. He needs to start substantially beating those targets to have a shot at the nomination.

micah: OK, let’s focus on the Republicans and Ohio for a moment. What do we expect to happen there? What are you seeing on the ground, Clare? On the GOP side, Ohio seems like the most fought-over state. But if Trump wins all the other states but loses to Kasich narrowly in Ohio, I’m not sure that should be seen as any less of a good night for Trump. After all, Kasich is a super-popular governor of Ohio — if Trump keeps it close, isn’t that a big deal?

harry: On the Republican side, the state seems to be moving away from Trump. He hasn’t led in any of the last six polls, and he tends to underperform his polls.

natesilver: I basically agree with that, Micah. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Trump would rather lose Ohio to Kasich to keep him in the race. That’s too cute by half. Or maybe even too cute by whole. But it’s probably more important how Cruz does vis-a-vis Trump tonight, since he’s Trump’s main rival.

If Trump wins Ohio but loses Missouri and (less likely) Illinois to Cruz, that’s a worse outcome for him than losing Ohio but taking four of the other five.

micah: Clare, what’s the mood in Cleveland? Are there pro-Trump vibrations?


clare.malone: — that is a real industrial company. But I digress.

natesilver: To my surprise, that site is SFW.

clare.malone: Thus far today, I’ve been only to districts that lean Democratic. My swing (in my swinging rental car) this afternoon will be to suburban communities further afield that tend to be more conservative or to pockets of the City of Cleveland that are white working-class and might be feeling some of those Trumpian vibrations. I will report more on that on our live blog of the primary results tonight.

But if ads are any indication of the mood, I logged my TV watching this morning from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., watching local news, and I saw seven commercials. Three were Kasich ads or pro-Kasich ads, one was for Cruz, one was for Clinton, one was for Sanders and there was a sole Trump ad, attacking Kasich for spending too much time in Michigan, because muck Fichigan.

natesilver: One thing we’ll learn more about tonight is which Republican candidates perform well in extremely Democratic congressional districts. In Ohio, that doesn’t matter for the delegate math since it’s winner-take-all. But it matters a lot in Illinois, New York and California, where there are large numbers of delegates at stake in districts that are 75+ percent Democratic in general elections.

micah: All right, so if a lot tonight rides on how Cruz does in Missouri and Illinois, let’s talk about that. Harry, how do we expect Cruz to do there?

harry: Well, Missouri is the black hole of polling. We have had one — one! — poll taken on the Republican side since the beginning of the year. The demographics suggest it could be a good state for Cruz given that he has won or come close to winning the states surrounding it. Illinois is a weird state. Cruz should do well in the south, but I’m unsure he can really play at all in the Chicago area, where most of the population is. Trump has led in all the polls in Illinois. If Cruz can win in Missouri and Kasich in Ohio, I’d be very interested to see how the media spins it.

clare.malone: “Illinois is a weird state” #analysis. I mean, I can tell you what the media spin is: CONTESTED CONVENTION!

natesilver: Illinois is pretty normal, methinks. Maryland is a weird state. Look how strange and misshapen it is! Alaska is a weird state. Illinois is pretty representative of the country as a whole, by contrast.

Anyway, the media is likely to pay too much attention to Ohio (and Florida) and too little to Illinois and Missouri. Still, I think a Cruz win in Illinois would matter more for the narrative than one in Missouri. Perhaps appropriately, since Illinois is a big, diverse state.

clare.malone: Maryland is pretty weird looking. It looks like the disintegrating fingers of a yeti. If Cruz won Illinois/Missouri, he would continue to have the pretty strong narrative argument that he’s the only one who’s consistently won (huzzah for homonyms).

harry: One of the things I’d watch in Illinois is whether voters properly fill out the ballot. Remember, you need to vote four times on the Republican side. Once for the statewide contest and three times for three district delegates. Newer voters may have problems. It’s conceivable that a candidate might “steal” delegates in a district, even as the statewide vote in that district goes for another candidate.

natesilver: Illinois seems super high variance. If Trump underperforms his polls by a couple of percentage points, then all of a sudden Cruz is winning districts in southern Illinois and Kasich might win a couple in and around Chicago. If Trump beats his polls by a couple of points, though, he could sweep most of the delegates and the inability of other GOP voters to coalesce around an alternative will look like a disaster.

harry: I should note that I went back last night and checked our polls-only forecasts, and Trump outperformed our forecast by more than a percentage point a grand total of three times. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen in Illinois. On the other hand, nine of 15 times he’s come in under our polls-only forecast.

clare.malone: Sorry, I’m just struck here that Marco Rubio’s name is no longer on our lips. (Or, the lips of our keyboards.) It’s amazing.

micah: Quite amazing … and Rubio is making noise that even if he loses Florida he won’t drop out.

clare.malone: That could also just be Election Day posturing, right?

micah: For sure.

natesilver: Yeah. Candidates always say that so as not to discourage turnout on Election Day. The one question I have, if Kasich loses Ohio and Rubio loses Florida, is whether one of them becomes more inclined to stay in because the other one dropped out.

clare.malone: Meanwhile they’re weeping on their buses, in the bathroom.

micah: What are Rubio’s chances in Florida?

natesilver: Our polls-plus model gives Rubio a … 3 percent chance. So a Rubio win would be pretty close to Sanders-wins-Michigan territory.

harry: It looks grim for Rubio in Florida. I have more hope that a third Deuce Bigalow film will actually be decent. Sure, it could happen, but none of the polls show anything other than a clear Trump win.

clare.malone: I kinda thought that Jeb Bush would have said something by now, speaking of Florida. He was meeting with candidates the past couple of days (not Trump).

Also, there were TWO Deuce Bigalow movies??

harry: He did a stint in Europe as a gigolo.

clare.malone: Oy. Can I ask a question about the post-March 15 universe real quick?

So, let’s say that Trump doesn’t sweep, that he loses Ohio, and that Kasich/Cruz both do well enough to stay in (Rubio’s toast, we assume). What does the next, say, month look like? Are people starting to game out plans for a contested convention? Is there another state that starts to look like the plum to bite into? If we were campaign strategists sitting in a hotel room, chain-smoking and applying Rogaine, what would we be thinking right now?

natesilver: I hate to be a broken record, but to me there’s a wide range of “well enough” from “Trump’s probably got this” to “Ohh, he’s in a lot of trouble here.”

harry: Note: Nate doesn’t actually hate being a broken record. He loves it.

clare.malone: “Well enough,” meaning?

natesilver: Kasich narrowly winning Ohio and Cruz finishing a distant second to Trump everywhere else would be good enough for them to both stay in the race, but would still be a pretty darn good night for Trump. But anyway — yeah, one thing that changes is that the primary calendar slows down quite a bit for the next month or so.

There’s Arizona next week, then there’s Wisconsin. Both states are pretty interesting. But comparatively speaking, it will be a breather.

Having a little more to think may lead to more talk about plans to contest the convention, or conversely to consolidate around Trump. You might see more speculation about a conservative third-party ticket, especially if Trump has a really good night.

clare.malone: Yeah, that’s the option I’m most fascinated by. To see if there’s anything to this splintering of the party. To see if they actually play out that scenario.

harry: I’d be very interested to see if Kasich basically camps out in New York. That’s where I would go if I were him. It has a lot of delegates and an electorate that could be favorable to him. New York’s primary is on April 19.

clare.malone: Long Island is lovely in the springtime.

natesilver: Hudson Valley >>> Long Island.

clare.malone: Oh, fo sho.

micah: Let’s jump back to the Democrats for a second before we wrap. If Clinton has a tough night — let’s say she loses Illinois, Ohio and maybe even Missouri, and wins North Carolina and Florida by less-than-expected margins — don’t things look pretty bad for her calendar-wise? From March 22 through April 9 there are a bunch of Sanders-friendly states. From Nate’s article earlier today:

3/15 Fla. 67% 32% 4% 63% 34% <1%
Ill. 54 45 34 52 44 10
Mo. 54 45 33 49 48 46
N.C. 68 31 4 63 36 <1
Ohio 51 48 42 54 43 3
3/22 Ariz. 52 47 40
Idaho 42 57 75
Utah 40 59 82
3/26 Alaska 36 63 91
Hawaii 41 58 81
Wash. 39 60 85
4/5 Wis. 47 52 61
4/9 Wyo. 41 58 80
4/19 N.Y. 55 44 30
4/26 Conn. 51 48 43
Del. 58 41 21
Md. 63 36 10 66 32 5
Penn. 52 47 41
R.I. 49 50 52
5/3 Ind. 52 47 42
5/10 W. Va. 45 54 67
5/17 Ky. 54 45 32
Ore. 44 55 70
6/7 Calif. 53 46 37
Mont. 39 60 85
N.J. 54 45 32
N.M. 52 47 42
N.D. 36 63 90
S.D. 54 45 34
6/14 D. C. 63 36 9
Demographic projections of the remaining Democratic states

natesilver: Yeah, the next little stretch is great for Sanders. I’m honestly not sure whether “the narrative” matters for the Democratic race, where voter preferences seem to be pretty stable. But if Clinton is perceived to have a bad night tonight, it could turn into a rough month for her.

harry: How many delegates are in those states, Micah? The states Sanders will do best in aren’t exactly delegate-filled: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

clare.malone: Man, Hawaii seems like it could use some FiveThirtyEight eyes on the ground.

micah: Nice try, Clare. Yeah Harry, I don’t think Sanders will overtake Clinton in delegates, but it’ll be a rough few weeks for her campaign, making tonight pretty critical for her narrative-wise.

natesilver: For a change, though, I wonder if expectations for Sanders aren’t getting a little ahead of themselves. He’s losing Ohio by a pretty clear margin in the polls. In Illinois, both our polling and demographic models have Clinton favored. In Missouri, it’s a bit harder to say. Clinton could go 2-for-5, but she could also very easily go 5-for-5.

Another thing to keep in mind — on both the Democratic and Republican sides — is that the results have often gone contrary to momentum. A week ago at exactly this time, the talk was about how Clinton was starting to wrap things up and how Trump was in trouble. Then Clinton had a bad night and Trump had an excellent one. If you’re a journalist, it’s easy to over-adjust your expectations, especially when you’re living and breathing the campaign 24 hours a day.

harry: I’m cracking up here, and not just because I’m watching a great episode of “Sex and the City.” Sanders very unlikely to go anywhere. He has a ton of money and a solid constituency. But Clinton has the pledged delegate lead and the demographics behind her. Sure, something could change, but we’re really just playing out the string on a baseball season when one team has a 20-game lead with two months to play.

clare.malone: To Nate’s point about the media and adjusting expectations, I think that’s right — I’m almost growing tired of the countless hypotheticals at this point (see my own above, though, because I am a frail human, after all). I’m sure that Sanders will stay in, if only because, as we might forget at this point, he came into the race to pull it to the left, and the momentum that he picked up along the way was somewhat astonishing.

micah: And he HAS pulled Clinton to the left.

clare.malone: Yes. So, in many ways, he’s already won. He’s exceeded his MORAL* expectations.

*On the moral scale of Bernie Sanders (readers, feel free to have your own opinions about that).

micah: But he’ll lose.

clare.malone: He’ll lose, but maybe he’ll go to heaven, if there is one.

micah: All Bernies go to heaven.

natesilver: The governing rule so far on the Republican side has been the Principle of Maximum Annoyingness, which means an ambiguous outcome. From the standpoint of wrapping up everything with a neat bow, it would be easier if Trump swept everything tonight, or really took some lumps (losing three or more states, for instance). Most likely, we’ll be somewhere in between, however.

micah: All right, to close, let’s play our traditional Election Day headline game. Give me the New York Times headline for Wednesday morning for the Democratic race and the Republican race (Harry, you can do the New York Post).

harry: My New York Daily News headline: “Cleveland Choke: Trump Loses Ohio.”

natesilver: “TRUMP WINS FLORIDA; KASICH TAKES OHIO.” There’s a LOT of news tonight, so I think the headlines may be short and to the point.

clare.malone: “Trump, Kasich, Split Tuesday’s Prize.”

micah: “It’s A Mess.”

clare.malone: That’s a terrible headline.

micah: So is yours!

clare.malone: Don’t fire me.

harry: Let’s be clear: We all suck.

Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.

A FiveThirtyEight Chat

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

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.