Donald Trump has had a good run of numbers lately. While his victory in New York this week was expected, he got 60 percent of the vote, more than the roughly 55 percent projected by the polls. He appears headed for victories in Maryland and Pennsylvania, which vote on Tuesday. He’s gained ground in California and is narrowly ahead of Ted Cruz in the first public polls of Indiana. He’s added about 2 percentage points over the past two weeks in our national polling average.
You could push back against some of these details. Some of the California polls come from pollsters1 that have had a Trump-leaning house effect or that used an unorthodox methodology. The Indiana polls have Trump leading, but with only about 39 percent of the vote, which might not be enough if the rest of the vote consolidates behind Cruz. The national poll gains are small and may just be statistical noise.
But with Trump’s path to 1,237 delegates on such a knife’s edge, every percentage point matters. And it’s possible that Trump has moved a few voters into his column with a series of process arguments that he’s been pressing recently. The more restrained version, as you can see in a recent op-ed published under Trump’s name in The Wall Street Journal, is that the candidate who gets the most votes should be the Republican nominee — that delegates shouldn’t upend the people’s verdict. In public speeches, Trump has taken the argument a step further, describing the GOP’s nomination process as “rigged” and “crooked.”
Polling suggests that a majority of Republicans agree with at least the milder version of Trump’s argument, although the framing of the question matters. Last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 62 percent of Republicans thought the “candidate with the most votes in the primaries” should become the nominee in the event that no candidate wins a majority of delegates, compared with 33 percent who said Republicans should choose the “candidate who the delegates think would be the best nominee.” Only 40 percent of Republicans had Trump as their first choice in the same poll, which implies that there’s a group of Republicans who personally don’t prefer Trump but wouldn’t want to deny him the nomination if he finished with the plurality of delegates and votes, as he is almost certain to do. We might call this group the #TolerateTrump faction of the GOP, as opposed to pro-Trump and #NeverTrump blocs.
Polls like those could sway delegate sentiment at the convention. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; there are still 15 states where voters have yet to weigh in. With John Kasich mathematically eliminated from winning on the first ballot at the convention and Cruz practically eliminated from doing so,2 a vote for either of Trump’s opponents is a vote for a contested convention at this point. It’s possible that some #TolerateTrump Republicans in states such as California might hold their nose and vote for Trump to try to pre-empt a contested convention, even though they might have voted for Cruz or Kasich earlier in the process.
However, there’s other polling to suggest that #TolerateTrump Republicans could be persuaded by counterarguments to Trump’s plurality-rules doctrine, if only they were hearing them. Consider, for instance, a recent YouGov poll of Pennsylvania, which had Trump with 46 percent of the vote there. That poll also asked about a contested convention but used different language than the NBC/WSJ poll did:
As you may know, the Republican party requires a nominee to get 1,237 delegates in the primaries for the nomination. If Donald Trump does not get 1,237 but Trump still has more delegates than Ted Cruz, and more delegates than John Kasich, what do you feel Republicans should do at the convention this summer?
In the YouGov survey, only 47 percent of voters said the convention should select Trump if he fails to reach 1,237 delegates, while 45 percent said the candidates should “fight for delegate support at the convention to decide the winner.” Not coincidentally, these percentages closely matched the candidates’ overall level of support in the poll.3 Explicitly pointing out that Republican rules require a candidate to get a majority and portraying the convention as a fight for delegates among the candidates rather than one in which the delegates are deciding things on their own seem to sway #TolerateTrump voters back into aligning with the #NeverTrump’s.
But if the framing of the question matters, Trump has a big advantage: The media is mostly echoing and validating his side of the argument. That’s partly because Trump continues to dominate news coverage of the Republican race and therefore has a lot more opportunities to get his message out.4
It also helps that Trump’s system-is-rigged message is relatively simple and plays into the media’s master narrative of the Republican race as a conflict between the Republican base and the GOP “establishment.” The Republicans’ delegate selection rules, by contrast, require an attention to detail that narrative-driven stories about the Republican race can misconstrue. Take this recent article from Jonathan Martin of The New York Times as an example; here’s how it begins:
With his thoroughly dominating performance on Tuesday in New York, Donald J. Trump proved that he remains the preferred candidate of most Republican primary voters. The question now is whether winning the most votes will be enough to make him the Republican nominee.
The volatile nominating contest has effectively spun off into two simultaneous races: one for votes and one for delegates. And they are starkly different.
Winning New York in a landslide — he captured all of the state’s 62 counties except his borough, Manhattan — Mr. Trump demonstrated the breadth of his support and his resilience in the aftermath of a loss in Wisconsin two weeks ago. With just 15 states remaining on the primary calendar, he has left little doubt about his popular appeal.
But the sturdy opposition to his candidacy within the party and his own organizational deficiencies have hampered him at the state and local level, where a byzantine process is underway to elect delegates to the Republican convention in Cleveland this summer. Senator Ted Cruz has dominated that esoteric inside game until now. And if Mr. Trump falls short of clinching the nomination after all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories have held their contests, those delegates could make their own decisions after the first ballot in Cleveland.
There’s quite a bit to critique in this passage. To start, note how Martin asserts that “Trump proved that he remains the preferred candidate of most Republican primary voters.” In fact, Trump has won only 38 percent of the vote so far and has won a majority of the vote only in his home state of New York.5 Trump is unusually unpopular for a party front-runner — only about half of Republicans would be happy with him as their nominee — but he’s taken advantage of the divided opposition.6
Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.
A more fundamental problem with Martin’s narrative is that it fails to clearly explain that the overwhelming majority of Republican delegates are bound based on primary or caucus results on the first ballot. In fact, because some states use winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules, the Republican delegate math tends to advantage the front-runner — in this case Trump, who has 47 percent of the delegates awarded so far with only 38 percent of the vote. By contrast, under the Democrats’ highly proportional delegate allocation rules, a contested convention would already be all but guaranteed.
It’s true that most delegates become free agents on the second ballot — and more still on the third and fourth ballots — and that Trump hasn’t done a good job in delegate-selection conventions held by state and local Republican parties.7 But that won’t matter if Trump has enough support on the first ballot, which he can still get if he finishes strongly in states such as California and Indiana. The process is still in Republican voters’ hands, and Trump may have found an argument that can get him over the finish line.