We’re going to need some time to digest what happened on Tuesday night on the Republican side. Donald Trump won the most votes. He won the most states. He won the most delegates. But did he move closer to winning the nomination? That isn’t so clear. FiveThirtyEight’s delegate maven, David Wasserman, said going in that “a disappointing night for Trump … probably means anything less than 250” delegates won. It appears as if he’s going to wind up a bit over 250. This is fewer than half the delegates up for grabs, however, so he’s not moving closer to an overall delegate majority.
I’ve been looking at Trump’s overall vote percentages to see if he was picking up support as the Republican field narrowed or if he would have trouble increasing his vote totals. Overall, his Super Tuesday results were mixed and not especially impressive. His apparent polling surge last week seems either to have dissipated or wasn’t real to begin with.
Ted Cruz won in Texas, his home state, and in neighboring Oklahoma, and he was the spin winner of the night, judging by what the talking heads said on Tuesday night.
But Cruz failed to pick up any other wins in what should have been his strongest region. Some Southern states have yet to vote, and it’s easy to underestimate how many conservative voters there are outside of the South — at least as a percentage of voters in Republican primaries. This was supposed to be Cruz’s big chance at winning delegates, however, and he appears to have fallen short.
Marco Rubio finally won a state, Minnesota. He came close in Virginia. He continues to do well with late-deciding voters. While he fell behind Cruz in delegates on Tuesday night, he should have a clearer playing field ahead. And help is on the way. He spent relatively little on these states, but his super- PAC has been raking in plenty of money, and will presumably blast Trump in each coming primary.
But Rubio failed to perform his biggest task of the day: Knocking out Cruz. It’s possible John Kasich will drop out, but it may be too late. Kasich probably accounted for the difference between a decent night and a disappointing one for Rubio.
Had Kasich dropped out after South Carolina and Nevada, the Florida senator would likely have won in Virginia, might have won in Vermont (where Trump and Kasich were running neck and neck), and probably would have crossed the thresholds needed to gain delegates in three states where it appears he will fall just short. Now, perhaps, everyone stays in, and Trump keeps winning most states.
It’s even possible — though unlikely – that they will carve up the map and each take a slice (with Kasich staying in and winning only Ohio), and we will get a contested Republican convention after all, with no candidate ending the primaries and caucuses with at least half of the delegates.
More likely, one candidate will wind up winning states in the latter stages of the election calendar and reap plenty of delegates.
This is what has happened before. Even front-runners who wind up winning are usually below the 50 percent mark at this stage in their delegate count. And on the Republican side, the rules make it easy for anyone who wins big to get a lot of delegates quickly.
So that’s what will happen this time. Right?
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist
covering U.S. politics. A political scientist, he previously wrote “A Plain Blog About Politics.”