If the Republican Party primaries followed the same rules as the Democratic primaries, Donald Trump would have little chance to win the nomination.
The Democrats are assigning pledged delegates based on the proportion of the vote, and they also have the so-called “super delegates” that consist of unpledged party leaders who can eventually vote for whomever they want. With Trump yet to break 50 percent in any state, he would likely never accumulate half of the pledged delegates under a proportional allocation system, much less convince the super delegates to get behind him.
But the Republican primary process has been geared this year to give huge advantages to the winners of primaries, no matter how weak those wins are.
If Trump meets expectations on Tuesday in Georgia and other states, he will have an overwhelming advantage in delegates even if he gets less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
As I discussed yesterday in a post about the Democratic primaries, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has been using two methods for forecasting outcomes in the primaries. The polls-only model simply factors in all the state polling data, with the numbers weighted for recency and for factors like the historical accuracy of the pollster. FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus model considers state polling, national polling, and endorsements. On the Democratic side, both the polls-only and polls-plus models point to big Clinton wins in the Georgia primary.
As I write this, FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only forecast gives Trump a 70 percent chance of winning the Georgia primary — that number is up from 49 percent just a few days ago. Rubio’s chances are 18 percent, with Cruz at 11 percent. Carson and Kasich have effectively zero chance of winning.
But the polls-plus forecast is much less bullish on Trump, who even fell behind Rubio for a day or two. As I write this, the polls-plus forecast has Trump with only a 49 percent chance of taking the Georgia primary, with Rubio at 40 percent and Cruz at 10 percent.
The polls-plus forecast projects Trump with 30.6 percent of the vote, Rubio with 29.1 percent, and Cruz with 20.2 percent. The polls-only forecast shows Trump at 35.1, Rubio at 24.1, and Cruz at 20.8. There is even more variability in possible outcomes than I’ve detailed so far; the 80 percent confidence range for Trump’s final percentage varies by more than 20 points.
According to Frontloading HQ — a great website maintained by Josh Putnam, a lecturer at UGA — Georgia will send 76 delegates to the Republican convention: 31 at-large delegates, 42 delegates allocated by congressional district, and 3 delegates bound to the state winner.
The 31 at-large delegates will be allocated proportionally with the popular vote, but there’s a 20 percent threshold to qualify for delegates. (Also, if a candidate hits 50 percent statewide, he’d get all the at-large delegates, but that seems unlikely to happen.) So if Trump comes in at 35 percent, Rubio at 25, and Cruz at 20, they would divvy up those delegates with something like 13 for Trump, 10 for Rubio, and 8 for Cruz. But if Cruz slips to 19 percent, then Trump and Rubio would split the 31 at-large delegates by something like 18 to 13.
There will also be 3 delegates from each of Georgia’s 14 districts. Those will be divided with 2 going to the district winner and 1 to the runner-up. (Again, if anyone hits the 50 percent mark in a given district, he’d get all three, but that’s probably not going to happen in this 5-man field.) If Rubio can hang close in the statewide vote, he might win several districts, especially those in metro Atlanta, and take second in most of the others.
So it’s entirely plausible that Trump could get only 1/3rd of the popular vote in Georgia on Tuesday, but he could still get 18 at-large delegates, 24 or more district delegates, and the 3 bound statewide delegates for a total of 45 delegates. In other words, Trump could win the state with only 33 percent of the vote and receive about 60 percent of the delegates.
Of course, that same math will hold if Rubio comes out on top — he could get only 30 percent of the statewide vote, win the state, and get the majority of the delegates.
If you’re in the “stop Trump” camp, you’re hoping for as many of these plausible outcomes as possible:
- Rubio leads the pack
- Cruz reaches the 20 percent statewide threshold
- Rubio wins at least five or six congressional districts
- Cruz takes 2nd in one or more of the districts that Rubio wins
Yes, it’s still possible that Cruz could win the state and that Kasich or Carson could also hit the 20 percent threshold. It’s even possible that Trump will slip to 3rd. But none of those outcomes seems likely.
So we could see a big Trump win on Tuesday in Georgia, or we could see the state’s Republican delegates divided something like Rubio 33, Trump 29, and Cruz 14. If Rubio and Cruz both manage strong or respectable showings in other Super Tuesday states, some of the Trump momentum will be blunted and the likelihood of a brokered convention will increase dramatically.
It’s obviously still possible for Rubio to win outright, especially with a winner-take-all contest coming up in Florida, but everything would have to fall just right for Rubio to emerge the clear winner going into the convention. And it’s still possible for Kasich to pick up significant numbers of delegates in some upcoming contests, including in Ohio. There seems no way that Kasich could get enough delegates to win the nomination outright, but he could be formidable if the convention is contested.