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Can Republicans Still Take The Nomination Away From Trump?

It’s tempting to go granular after a night like Super Tuesday. What if Marco Rubio had won a few more votes in Virginia? What if Donald Trump had a few more in Oklahoma and Alaska? What about the delegate math? It’s not that these are unworthy questions. After a night that was pretty good for Trump but also not the kind of historic showing that would have put the Republican race away, we’ll have plenty of time to dissect what happened in the coming days.

But another, perhaps more important question is still unanswered: Does Trump have a mandate from Republican voters?

I know: The whole “mandate” thing is fuzzy. But this definition comes pretty close to my meaning: “that the electorate broadly supports your plans and has told you so with an electoral victory.” Are Republican voters, at enormous consequence, really ready to transform their party into the party of Trump? Or instead, do his victories so far reflect the lack of a clear alternative?

This is a familiar argument, and to some people it would seem to have an obvious answer: of course Trump has a mandate! He’s won 10 of the 15 states and far more delegates than anyone else. He’s also leading in national polls — and polls of most future states. He’s been the center of attention for more than half a year and his voters have stuck with him.

But there’s also the fact that Trump has received only 34 percent of the Republican vote, aggregated across all primaries and caucuses to have voted so far. He did not really improve on that figure on Super Tuesday; Trump had a combined 33 percent of the vote through the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada); he got 34 percent in Super Tuesday states themselves.

Donald Trump 34.2%
Ted Cruz 28.1
Marco Rubio 21.7
John Kasich 6.6
Ben Carson 5.8
Jeb Bush 1.7
Chris Christie 0.4
About one-third of Republicans have voted for Trump so far

Reflects results through early morning on March 2, 2016

There’s been a lot of debate among pundits about this — in particular, about whether Trump has a “ceiling.” Some of it has been pretty aggravating to follow because it tends to conflate Trump’s ceiling (the share of voters who would potentially be willing to vote for Trump) with his floor (the share who will stick with him no matter what). It also tends to neglect that Trump is more popular in some parts of the country than others. So far, he’s received as little as 21 percent of the vote (in Minnesota) and as much as 49 percent (in Massachusetts).

The simplest test of Trump’s mandate (or lack thereof) would be if every other candidate dropped out and Trump were matched up with Rubio or Cruz one-on-one. However, Tuesday’s results made that less likely. The dilemma is that while Cruz has done better so far, winning more states (including three on Tuesday), votes and delegates than Rubio, there’s reason to think Rubio will do better going forward. In contrast to Cruz, who has benefited from a calendar full of states with lots of evangelical voters, Rubio’s best states are probably ahead of him and he has higher favorability ratings than Cruz.

As a result, we’ve increasingly seen the campaigns, especially Rubio’s and Kasich’s, talk about winning at a contested convention in Cleveland. I’m of a few minds about this. First, the fact that the other campaigns are resorting to drawing up plans for a contested convention has to count as a pretty good sign for Trump. Second, the talk may be premature. As the calendar turns toward states with more aggressive (sometimes winner-take-all) delegate rules — particularly Florida and Ohio on March 15 — it will become easier to rack up a delegate majority even with plurality support. That probably works to Trump’s benefit, although it also means that Cruz or Rubio could rack up quite a few delegates if they “get hot” later on during the campaign.

But the possibility of a contested convention is part of why the notion of a “mandate” is important. If (for instance) Trump has won 37 of 50 states and 49.9 percent of delegates going into the convention, then technically Republicans might be able to deny him the nomination. For that matter, technically they’d be able to deny Trump the nomination even if he had a delegate majority by changing the rules at the last minute. But the cure might be worse than the disease. It could look as though Republican elites were overriding their voters’ popular will (because, uh, that’s pretty much what they’d be doing). It might even be a casus belli for Trumpism. Even if some Republicans thought it was essential to prevent Trump from winning the presidency, there could be better means to accomplish that, especially by forming a conservative third-party ticket.1

By contrast, if Trump didn’t have that seeming mandate — if he were far short of a delegate majority, if he were still unable to secure more than 34 percent of the vote as we got deeper into the calendar, if he’d started to lose quite a few major states (even if not always to the same opponent) in April and beyond — it would be less risky to deny him the nomination.

All of this is speculative, and unavoidably so, because we haven’t had a contested convention since the modern primary era began in 1972. My point is simply that anti-Trump Republicans ought to look for ways to test their voters’ resolve to back Trump. They could develop better anti-Trump advertising campaigns, which have received shockingly little financial backing so far. Even if they can’t push Trump’s opponents out of the race, they can push back against a media-driven coronation of Trump or a premature consolidation around him. They ought to make Trump fight like hell for the nomination through all 50 states. But if he seems to have earned it, they probably shouldn’t count on taking it away from him.

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  1. If such a ticket got even 5 percent to 10 percent of the vote, that would make it nearly impossible for Trump to beat Clinton.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.