When Trump first entered the race back in July, I wrote that he might just be the great white hope for the GOP, especially for uninformed voters. Given the record turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump has motivated more people to get out and vote Republican than–quite literally–ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But those voters, sadly, remain uninformed. They are almost certainly being set up for disappointment should their man win the nomination, and even the White House. To win the general election, Trump will have to revert to his former centrist/moderate positions. He will veer left, and he’s more comfortable there anyway.
Based on Nate Silver’s analysis of a potential Bloomberg run, you can see how Trump moved right past moderate to stay to the right of the entire GOP field, including Ted Cruz.
There are only two paths for Trump to win the White House: Through the GOP nomination, or as a third party candidate. No third party candidate has ever won the presidency, so that road would present a lot of risk. But running for the GOP requires Trump to borrow a used dress to become a bride.
Unlike the Democrats, whose use of super delegates put losing Hillary Clinton even with Bernie Sanders, who beat her like a drum in New Hampshire, the Republicans have a more pluralistic process for picking a nominee.
RNC rules give each state 10 “at-large” delegates, plus a bonus based on the state’s past performance in elections. For example, South Carolina has 50 delegates, 26 of them are at large. The rest consist of 3 delegates per Congressional district, and the RNC leadership of the state. South Carolina has 21 Congressional district delegates and 3 RNC.
Before March 15, states are not allowed to allocate delegates “winner take all,” but they can do so by Congressional district, as South Carolina does. If Trump, as he did in NH, wins every district in S.C., he will pick up all 50 delegates, even if he wins the state by a fraction of a percent. Conversely, if Trump finishes first in the statewide election, he will pick up the 26 at large plus the 3 RNC delegates, but for each district he loses, the winner gets those 3 delegates.
The “SEC primary” March 1 states are proportional like New Hampshire and Nevada. By the end of the day on March 1, 822 delegates out of 1,237 required to win the nomination will have been awarded. This is how the RNC in 2012 planned to anoint an establishment candidate well before the summer. And here is where Trump has to win.
If Trump, who now has 17 delegates to Cruz’s 11, can win South Carolina’s 29, plus a plurality of the district delegates (say, 12, for a total of 42), and head into March 1 after Nevada with nearly 75 delegates and a commanding lead, he could make a play for the lion’s share of the 689 delegates up for grabs. If Trump can get to 425 delegates or above, he might be on a roll to close the deal by Florida’s 99 delegate winner-take-all on March 15.
Of course, lots of things could happen before then, but we’re talking just over a month away, with Bush and Rubio bleeding badly, Kasich likely to fail in the south, and the race quickly narrowing. RCP has a cool little tool where you can spend hours playing “what if” on delegate counts. I noodled with it a while, and I believe if Cruz can take Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, and get past 250 delegates, he could stop Trump.
And then it gets interesting.
Trump has to borrow the GOP’s dress. If he doesn’t win outright with 1,237 delegates, he will have to face a convention heavily loaded in Cruz’s favor. Cruz, who’s been playing delegate chess for a year, will likely take Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas. He will have strong support among the RNC delegates. And his campaign has already reached out to pack the county and state conventions with Cruz supporters.
The RNC created this system and Reince Preibus will make them live by it. The convention is going to run by the rules. All those pledged delegates Trump enjoys will turn on him if he can’t get the nomination outright. The borrowed dress will go back to its owner.
If Cruz, for some reason beyond my capability to predict or understand, is not the GOP challenger to Trump at convention time, things might get, as they say in hockey, chippy. But unless Cruz self-destructs (highly unlikely) or Bush somehow resurrects (more unlikely) or Rubio saves the world, we will either have Trump as the Republican nominee or Cruz challenging him.
Knowing this, I believe if Cruz carries enough states on March 1, or wins South Carolina outright in a big way, Trump will start considering a third party run. Yes, even as the leader, he could bow out. Trump knows he can only get to the altar two ways, and if he can’t wear the GOP’s borrowed dress, he’ll wear his own.