Despite a concerted effort by many in the GOP to derail him, Donald Trump remains on track to capture the nomination. That’s not to say that the track is entirely clear. Kasich’s success in Ohio was a blow to Trump’s “inevitability” storyline. And, despite his wins, he’s failed to carry any state with a majority of the vote. That’s important to remember given that he’ll need to win at least 53 percent of the remaining delegates to hit magic number of 1,237 delegates. That said Trump remains helped by a divided field and the upcoming primary calendar that features that features lots of winner-take-all and winner-take-most contests, northeastern states where he should do well and few caucus contests where he’s struggled.
Here are the key issues ahead for this next phase of the GOP nomination contest:
1. Let’s dispel with the fiction that's there's a unifying GOP candidate. There are plenty of Republicans who don’t like Donald Trump. He is the most polarizing of the candidates in either party. And yet, the reality is that no single non-Trump candidate has been able to mobilize the majority of Republicans to their side. With both John Kasich and Ted Cruz staying in the race, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a consensus anti-Trump emerge. The more the field is divided, the better for Trump.
There’s perhaps no better indicator of the difficulty ahead for the non-Trump candidates than Illinois. This is the kind of state where a more traditional, “establishment” candidate does well. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the state with 47 percent. This year, Trump carried Illinois with a smaller 39 percent plurality. But, Cruz took just 30 percent (five points below Rick Santorum’s showing in 2012), while the traditional, establishment GOPers Marco Rubio and John Kasich took a combined 29 percent. As long as that pattern continues in the upcoming states, it’s hard to see how Trump gets seriously derailed.
2. The upcoming calendar is favorable to Trump. The south and Midwest have all pretty much weighed in at this point. Cruz didn’t do as well in the south as he should have. Kasich didn’t do as well in the Midwest as he should have. Now, it’s now time for the west and northeast to have their say. On the one hand, the blue states up in mid-April (New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania) should favor the more establishment candidacy of Kasich. In 2012, Romney easily defeated Rick Santorum in these states. However, Trump has a regional appeal that makes him uniquely positioned for these states. And, despite early predictions that closed primaries, as most of these northeastern states will be, would hinder Trump, he’s managed to win in both open and closed contests. It’s easy to see how Trump carries not just New York, but also Rhode Island, Delaware, and even Connecticut.
Moreover, Trump continues to win among ‘somewhat conservative’ Republicans, the group of voters that have proven to be the most predictive of winning the nomination. Of the 20 states that have voted – and have exit poll data - Trump has carried the ‘somewhat conservative vote in 16 of them, including wins last night in Illinois, Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.
Trump’s immigration stance will help him in Arizona on March 22, a winner take all state with 58 delegates. And, we should expect him to do well in blue-collar areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington state.
Moreover, the map isn’t all that favorable to Cruz. Not only are the northeastern states a cultural mismatch for Cruz, there are also few remaining caucuses left on the calendar. Caucuses, with their more socially conservative constituency and emphasis on grassroots organizing, have been great for the Cruz campaign. Of the 21 states that vote between now and June 7, however, only four hold caucuses. Cruz is the only candidate with the money and the expertise to compete in the arcane congressional level delegate fights in delegate rich states like California and New York. That may be enough to fracture the vote enough to prevent Trump from getting the total number of delegates he needs, though it might not prevent a Trump “win” in the state.
3. A contested convention? Is there a possibility that the GOP nomination is decided in a floor fight in Cleveland? Absolutely. Is it believable that there’s a candidate out there – whether one who’s been in the race or who hasn’t – who can unify the party? I am highly skeptical. A floor fight only serves to further divide and depress this already fractured party. Moreover, the idea that an outsider, one who has not been in the trenches during this long, bloody fight for the GOP nomination, would be allowed to swoop in and capture the nomination just strikes me as impossible.
There’s also a big difference between Donald Trump coming into Cleveland 20 delegates short and getting to the convention 200 delegates short. The former looks like a technicality fight. The latter looks like a real fight over the wishes of the GOP. Moreover, when all is said and done, the top two vote getters – by a large margin – will be Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. To this point, they have captured more than 65 percent of the overall vote. For the GOP to pick someone other than either of these two candidates would be going against the explicit desire of a large majority of the party.
4. Be careful what you wish for. Talking with Democratic and GOP elites has been a mind-bending experience this year. Those on the GOP side are deeply disdainful and fearful of a Trump nomination. Not only does he hurt their prospects to win the White House, they say, but he assures a down-ballot sweep by the Democrats. Moreover, they fear that Trump will redefine the party and conservatism. Republican establishment types personally dislike Cruz, but they are coming to see him as the least-bad option.
Meanwhile, talk to Democratic elites – especially those in the business of campaign organizing – and they fear Trump more than Cruz. Trump’s unpredictability and his appeal to downscale white voters, has them very worried. Cruz, meanwhile, is a more predictable and candidate for whom the Democrats have proven they have the playbook to defeat. The data, however, doesn’t bear out this thinking. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling found that Cruz outperforms Trump among key demographic groups like women (Hillary wins women by 14 points against Cruz, but by 27 points against Trump); white voters (Cruz carries them by 15 points, Trump wins them by just 4 points); and older voters (Cruz loses those 65 and older by 4 points to Clinton while Trump loses them by 13 points). However, there is still a great deal of anxiety among the Democratic DC class that Clinton will both fail to motivate the Obama coalition and lose by an even wider margin among white voters against Trump.
In a race that has had more twist and turns than anyone could have imagined, we may be in for many more of them in the coming weeks. For now, however, the Trump train is still rolling along and showing no signs of losing steam.