On Monday, we published the results of a survey of fellow presidential election delegate obsessives that we conducted in an effort to map out Donald Trump’s route to the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the Republican nomination. So for this week’s politics Slack chat, we also gathered the available members of that panel to talk over/geek out on the results. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): All right, everyone, here’s the average estimate of Donald Trump’s delegate haul for each state from our expert delegate panel: [Check here for some notes on the delegate numbers in this table.]
|DATE||CONTEST||AVAILABLE||PROJECTED FOR TRUMP|
|New Trump delegates||513|
|Delegates to date||695|
We’ll get to some of the most interesting and critical states in a moment, but what were your biggest takeaways from the panel’s estimates?
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): My biggest takeaway is how on the knife’s edge this is going to be. We probably won’t know whether Trump is going to clear the 1,237 threshold until at least June. It’s March 21 — we have a long way to go.
dave (David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight contributor): First off, while we don’t know whether Trump will hit 1,237 or not, we should all be able to agree on one takeaway: For the first time in a very long time, every state will matter — and yeah, this thing’s going all the way to June. I don’t see any way for Trump to attain 1,237 until June 7, and I don’t see any realistic way for him to be mathematically eliminated from 1,237 before June 7.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): When I was filling out my projections, I was a little bit surprised that I had Trump coming up short of 1,237 since I thought I was being fairly optimistic for him in individual states. However, once you account for the facts that (1) there are quite a few uncommitted delegates and (2) Trump isn’t likely to do so well in less populous states west of the Mississippi, which is a fair bit of what’s out there — well then, Trump has to do really well everywhere else.
daniel (Daniel Nichanian, contributing editor to Daily Kos Elections and PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago): I agree that it’s striking that Trump is hovering right around the number of delegates he needs (1,237) with estimates that are generally optimistic for him. But they’re also not his best-case scenario. It’s easy to see how slightly underperforming these benchmarks in just a few of these states would leave him far from 1,237, but also how slightly outperforming them (say, in a state like New York) gets him higher still.
harry: I think what Daniel (or Taniel) is saying points to the fact that there’s been a lot of overconfident predictions both that Trump will and won’t make it to 1,237. Caution is warranted.
natesilver: Can I get geeky here? I think this is a case where the mean and the median estimate of Trump’s delegates might be pretty different.
micah: Geek out!
natesilver: I wound up being toward the lower end of the group on Trump because I was looking at things probabilistically. For instance, I have him as likely to win Arizona but not certain. Meanwhile, in a few other states where other folks regarded Trump as certain to lose, I gave him a chance. So often my estimate was one of the ones screened out by the “Russian judge”/Olympic-style scoring method.
micah: (Where the highest and lowest estimate for each state get tossed before we calculate the average.)
natesilver: In general, though, there are a lot of states that look pretty good for Trump but could cost him a lot of delegates if he slips, but fewer where you have it the other way around. So if you were taking some sort of weighted mean from a probability distribution, I think it would wind up with fewer delegates for Trump than a median or modal projection.
dave: Another thing we should make clear here to those who haven’t spent many nights geeking out on The Green Papers or Ballotpedia: A big myth going around is that states are either purely winner-take-all or they’re proportional. The fact is, there are a ton of delegates remaining that are winner-take-all by congressional district, like in California, Wisconsin and Maryland. The calendar from here on out will really require Ted Cruz and John Kasich to know where to “cherry-pick” for delegates.
daniel: That’s where the dynamics of a three-way race will be fascinating to watch: Will Kasich and Cruz boost the anti-Trumpers’ hopes by each picking up delegates in congressional districts where they have some strength (as happened in Illinois at the district level), or will they neutralize each other at the statewide level, as happened in Illinois as well?
natesilver: If Kasich and Cruz were implicitly (or explicitly) collaborating, their strengths and weaknesses might line up pretty advantageously to stop Trump from getting 1,237. However, it’s not clear that Kasich is playing along.
dave: This is where the anti-Trump forces seem to fail. They’re convinced they can get voters to vote strategically, but there’s little evidence of that working so far.
micah: How big of a punch bowl turd is Kasich for the #NeverTrumps?
natesilver: A pretty big one, I think, to the point where it’s fair to wonder whether Kasich might be interested in a VP slot on a Trump ticket.
micah: Message-wise, that would be an odd fit.
natesilver: Our polls-only forecast has Cruz just barely getting over 50 percent in Utah, for instance, which means he’d get all the delegates there in a potentially big (albeit not terribly surprising) blow to Trump. But Cruz would be more assured of surpassing 50 percent if Kasich were out campaigning in Wisconsin or New York instead of in Utah.
daniel: Many Republicans are trying to marginalize Kasich. And there are great arguments to be made that he’s hurting anti-Trump forces by allowing Trump to continue winning with pluralities — not to mention endangering the Cruz campaign’s efforts to shut Trump out of Utah, as Nate said. But upsides of having Kasich in are that: (1) The GOP needs to prevent Trump from hitting 50 percent triggers in New York and Connecticut, and (2) Kasich could play better in some congressional districts (as he did in the Chicago suburbs) where it’s harder to see Cruz overtaking Trump.
dave: It seems to me like Kasich’s genuinely convinced there are still some places only he, and not Cruz, can beat Trump. And he may have a small point — so far he’s won more votes in a lot of leftie hangouts like Ann Arbor, Michigan; Burlington, Vermont; and “Harry Entenville,” Hanover, New Hampshire. It’s just that there may be more delegates at stake in places where Kasich is robbing Cruz of outright wins.
harry: See, that’s the thing about Kasich. If he were willing to “play along,” he could help the anti-Trump folks in the remaining New England states and the northern Mid-Atlantic states. The problem is he is also trying to play in the West and Midwest, where Cruz can probably do fine all by himself.
micah: So will it all come down to how organized/targeted the anti-Trump candidates/voters/forces will be? That seems like a recipe for a Trump nomination, based on their record to date.
natesilver: I’d distinguish the voters from the candidates. The voters have sometimes been willing to play along. See Ohio, for instance, where Marco Rubio’s voters dutifully seemed to go to Kasich. The candidates have been another matter.
daniel: To Nate’s point: We may have also seen that after Super Tuesday, when Rubio’s support collapsed in a matter of days. It’s possible some of that was due to strategic consideration, and to some voters coalescing around the strongest anti-Trump alternative. (That’s when Rubio fell from around 20 percent in Louisiana’s early voting to around 10 percent of primary day voters.)
micah: All right, let me turn the convo briefly: What factors did you use to estimate Trump’s delegate haul in each state besides that state’s delegate allocation rules? Where is Trump strongest and weakest, and what’s that based on?
harry: Well, for me, these estimates were based off three factors. (1) The results so far. Trump has generally done better in the South and Northeast, while being weaker in the Midwest and West. (2) Polling of upcoming contests, where available, to confirm that regional pattern. It generally has. (3) How much coalescing of the anti-Trump vote there will be in a given state.
natesilver: I threw sheep entrails around on a large map of the United States and made predictions based on where they landed.
micah: Sheep are notoriously anti-Trump; they’re always making baaaah-d deals!
dave: Trump seems to be benefiting a great deal from the fact that there are many places where neither Cruz nor Kasich has much natural appeal. For example, Trump has won a lot of delegates in African-American-majority congressional districts in places like St. Louis and Chicago where there aren’t many evangelicals, wealthy whites — or for that matter, Republicans period. So I see Trump winning a lot of delegates in minority-majority districts in places like California and New York, and that’s a big problem for #NeverTrump right now.
natesilver: I guess that’s one difference — I’m a little bit less certain how those super-blue congressional districts will go. They actually seemed to be pretty good for Rubio earlier in the campaign. Will that support now transfer to Kasich?
daniel: For me, an uncertain part in making these projections was the dynamics of the three-way race: (1) The GOP field is finally consolidated enough that there is some uncertainty as to whether Trump can go high enough to win states that he would have been clearly favored to win with a plurality had they voted earlier. (2) But it’s still unclear how Kasich plays in some states where his degree of viability will be a major factor in the allocation of statewide and district delegates.
harry: In Illinois, the majority-minority districts were clearly pro-Trump, but in Missouri they were far less so. And we have very limited information in a lot of states. Can Kasich keep it up? I have no clue.
natesilver: Yeah, Kasich is the biggest “known unknown” in a lot of ways. I think we have a pretty good idea of where Cruz’s strengths and weaknesses are. But how high do Kasich’s numbers go, and where does he take his support from?
dave: Personally, I just said screw it and gave Cruz every district bordering Canada.
daniel: It’s late March, 60 percent of delegates have been allocated, and the rest is dependent on the strength of a candidate who for now has only won his home state!
harry: This year is bizarre.
dave: And Daniel, I’m sure we’ll talk about this in a moment, but it really does matter how much of a home-state bounce Trump gets in New York. He’s the only one left whose home state hasn’t voted.
daniel: Yes, Kasich could take in the votes of Rubio supporters, and he has shown that he can attract significant support. But he has also disappointed in states he has focused on other than Ohio, like Michigan, where he came in third. It really remains to be seen how much support Kasich can attract outside of his home state.
micah: All right, so let’s start really getting into specific states: What contests emerged from this exercise as the most crucial in determining whether Trump reaches 1,237?
daniel: There is no path for Trump to 1,237 if he doesn’t do well in California.
natesilver: California was the state with the largest standard deviation among the panelists. It has a lot of delegates, and we don’t have a great idea of what’s going to happen there.
dave: There are really three “clusters” left, right? (1) Acela Corridor (2) Great Plains (3) West Coast. And Cruz is lucky the Republican National Committee’s delegate allocation seem to be based on sheep rather than people.
harry: I think the first big test is Wisconsin in early April. That’s a state where Rick Santorum did reasonably well in 2012 against a far stronger candidate, Mitt Romney. Polls have shown Trump stuck at around 30 percent and with very high negative ratings, including from the Republican stronghold of Waukesha.
Can the anti-Trump vote consolidate there?
natesilver: The thing about Wisconsin is that it feels like a state that could easily wind up Trump 38 percent/Cruz 31 percent/Kasich 31 percent. Not too far from where Illinois was.
Wisconsin, like Illinois, issues a lot of its delegates by congressional district. But a top-line vote like that wound up playing pretty well for Trump at the district level in Illinois.
dave: To Nate’s point about Kasich spoiling his way to Trump’s VP, I actually think that role could be played by Scott Walker not going full Romney on Trump in Wisconsin.
daniel: Other very important states to watch are New York and Connecticut: Can Trump reach 50 percent in those states to activate winner-take-all triggers? If he does, it could compensate for a disappointing performance in a state like Wisconsin. Also important, more obviously so: The candidates have little room for error in the winner-take-all states. Even a small Trump loss in Arizona or New Jersey, or a small Cruz loss in Nebraska or South Dakota, would have magnified consequences.
dave: Exactly, Daniel. If Trump were to win 51 percent uniformly across New York, he would claim 88 of 95 delegates, by my count. That would be enormous heading into the other “Acela” states the following week.
natesilver: It’s hard for me to see Trump losing New Jersey. Arizona, though? Early voting and Trump’s immigration stance will probably get him across the finish line, but I wish we had a more recent poll there.
harry: I want to talk about New York for just a second here. Trump should be very strong in the western part of the state (i.e., around Erie County), but most of the delegates won’t be awarded in that part of the state. Only 14 delegates are awarded statewide. The majority of the delegates will be awarded downstate and in New York City. We’ll really need to know the congressional delegate vote percentages to know how Trump did in New York.
natesilver: There are, what, 11 or 12 congressional districts that are mostly based in New York City proper?
dave: That’s about right, maybe a little higher.
natesilver: In 2012, some of those districts had fewer than 1,000 voters in the Republican primary! Granted, the race wasn’t competitive by the time New York voted four years ago. But if you’re living in the South Bronx — or even in Park Slope — your vote is REALLY high-leverage.
daniel: And the 50 percent winner-take-all trigger rules apply at the district level as well: If a winning candidate crosses 50 percent, he’ll get all three of a district’s delegates. If not, just two.
harry: I mean, who the heck are the Republicans voting in José Serrano’s district in the South Bronx?
dave: I’m not sure, but I’d hate to see their mailboxes in early April.
daniel: The same dynamic exists in Maryland, Washington and California — states where the bulk of delegates will be allocated by district, which makes these projections especially challenging!
natesilver: There’s one state that I think we’ve badly neglected: Indiana.
dave: Another state we haven’t really mentioned, but I think is a really big deal: Indiana. Jinx!
daniel: And I’d add West Virginia: The state uses a loophole primary, and we saw in Illinois that loophole primaries can produce some unexpected results if voters don’t want to vote for a given delegate, as Dave has reported.
micah: I’d imagine Trump doing well in West Virginia, but what about Indiana? Indiana seems Missouri-esque close, right?
dave: Our panel has Trump at 37 delegates in Indiana, but really, I think that’s Cruz’s best opportunity to knock Trump off track. If Cruz wins Indiana, he’s likely winning at least 45 delegates.
harry: You get more delegates for winning statewide in Indiana than New York.
natesilver: Indiana:Missouri is not a bad analogy. But yeah, West Virginia is wacky. From what I understand, voters have to select from a list of 22 statewide delegates?
harry: West Virginia is especially tough.
dave: I kind of wonder whether if Trump sweeps the Acela corridor states voting on April 19 and April 26, the aura of inevitability will be too much to overcome by that point.
natesilver: Yeah — in terms of “momentum,” that makes Wisconsin pretty darn important.
daniel: The Obama-Clinton primary in 2008 was so long-haul that after a certain point candidates were hardly getting any burst of momentum from any particular win anymore. Could we see a similar situation from now on in the GOP side, where the candidates’ support firms up in the remaining states?
natesilver: Even early on in the race, there weren’t that many signs of momentum with respect to Trump’s vote. To some extent, his results have defied momentum — having relatively bad nights after really strong ones, and vice versa.
But the other candidates’ vote shares have fluctuated a lot more, in part because voters have been behaving tactically.
I’m not sure where that leaves us, other than to say there are a lot of known unknowns. For starters, we still don’t really have enough polling to say where Rubio’s ex-voters have gone. We don’t have much polling in Arizona or Wisconsin or Indiana or California. There’s a lot we don’t know, and relatively small differences could make a big swing in the delegate count.
micah: We know we probably won’t know whether Trump reaches 1,237 for sure until June 7, right?
micah: At least there’s that.