Sabato's Crystal Ball

Titanic Tuesday: Trump Leads but Doesn’t Finish the Job

Clinton back on track with a strong night

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball March 16th, 2016


Donald Trump could have generated unstoppable momentum had he won both Ohio and Florida. But now it’s clear to everyone that this will go right through June 7, the end of the Republican primary season.

Most observers appear to think that the Republicans are headed for a contested convention now, because with Kasich’s win in Ohio, Donald Trump probably cannot get to the magic number of 1,237 delegates. However, there are 19 states to go, so this conclusion may be premature. Additionally  — and this is being ignored by many — there will be 40 days between the end of the Republican primaries on June 7 and the start of the GOP convention. This is plenty of time for intense negotiations between and among the campaigns, facilitated by others within the party. Do not underestimate the possibility that a ticket can be agreed upon before the gavel brings the convention to order. In addition, if Trump has hundreds more delegates than the runner-up (almost certainly, Cruz) and he is over 1,000 delegates, it will be exceedingly difficult to deny him the nomination. In fact, to do so would be to guarantee a meltdown of historic proportions in Cleveland.

Lost in John Kasich’s victory in Ohio was that Trump largely did well outside the Buckeye State. He romped in Florida and captured its 99 delegates. He won North Carolina by a few points over Ted Cruz, so he padded his delegate lead by a few there. Trump also apparently won Missouri, and he is on track to get the lion’s share of delegates from Illinois.

So Trump did well — except in Ohio, where Kasich scored a roughly 10-point win.

Kasich did an impressive job of building on Mitt Romney’s Ohio victory from four years ago, capturing the three big urban counties and adding to them by outperforming Romney in several places, including the Northwest. Trump’s strongest support was largely confined to Ohio’s Appalachian counties, which bodes well for Trump in some upcoming races, such as the western part of Pennsylvania and also West Virginia.

The Ohio governor has made it further than many thought, combining skill and more than a little luck to become one to the final three contenders. However, he is obviously the weakest of the final troika in terms of delegates, national name ID, and support. Additionally, Kasich doesn’t have any credible path to 1,237 delegates. However, even he has seemed to admit recently that his goal is to make it to the convention in Cleveland. If he does, then perhaps anything could happen — though imagining Kasich becoming the nominee takes the imagination of a novelist.

One does wonder whether Kasich has the organizational wherewithal to compete with Trump and Cruz. He has performed poorly in most states so far, and there is even some question about whether he will make the ballot in Pennsylvania, the state where he was born. The Keystone State would be critical to any breakthrough for Kasich.

However, if the race does go to the convention, Kasich will be a significant reason why. Kasich’s victory in his home state blocked Trump from capturing a large winner-take-all state. Those 66 delegates could be the difference between an outright Trump victory and a contested convention. If that’s what happens, the Republican Party’s anti-Trump forces will owe Kasich a great deal of gratitude.

Cruz’s problem may be that he has very good generals but not enough troops. That is: His campaign is well-run and well-executed but it simply lacks sufficient popular support among the voters. Outside of Texas, his victories have been limited to caucus states and small-state primaries, places like Idaho and Oklahoma. As we mentioned in our preview of the March 15 contests, we have our doubts about Cruz’s ability to beat Trump in big states like California and New York. Just look at what happened on Tuesday night: Cruz did earn some delegates but he didn’t win statewide anywhere (unless he somehow pulls ahead in Missouri). One thing we can say, though: His campaign probably has the best understanding of the rules that govern the primaries, caucuses, and delegate selection in the states. The Cruz campaign also points to the fact that many of the upcoming primaries are closed, so some of the irregular Republican-leaning independents backing Trump won’t be able to vote in those places. On the other hand, Florida was a closed primary — and Trump romped there.

As noted, the race is now down to three. To borrow from T.S. Eliot: This is the way Marco Rubio’s campaign ends, not with a bang but a whimper. For the Florida senator, being golden-tongued was not enough in 2016. A dismal performance in his home state proved to be his campaign’s death knell. In the Sunshine State, Trump gave Rubio a stunningly sizable shellacking, winning every county save Miami-Dade, Rubio’s home base. It was an ignominious end for a supposed “favorite son” candidate. It has been suggested, convincingly, that Rubio had been running for the presidency from the moment he entered the Senate, a move that has weakened his ties to the GOP in his home state. With his presidential race over, one has to wonder about Rubio’s political future. Possibly, Rubio could be offered the vice presidential spot, though his weak showing on Tuesday won’t help him. He may need to restore himself by running for another office in the state that just rejected him. Florida’s other Senate seat and the state’s open governorship are on the 2018 ballot. No doubt there are plenty of ambitious GOP politicians already eyeing both contests who won’t be inclined to step aside. Rubio is still young, however, and it’s difficult to imagine he’s finished with politics.

We commented throughout this process that Rubio had the potential to be a very good candidate and one who could unite the disparate GOP tribes, but he never reached that potential. Rubio 2016 brings to mind the old joke about Brazil: It’s the country of the future, and it always will be. Hopefully for Rubio, at some point the future will become the present.

So here’s where we’re at. Trump is the clear leader, and he still benefits from a split field, albeit one that now features only two other competitors, Cruz and Kasich. The contest should go on through June, and maybe longer, possibly into a contested convention. While Trump has not yet become the prohibitive favorite, you would much rather be the New York billionaire than anyone else. Based on the numbers we have at this point, Trump needs to win roughly 60% of the post-March 15 delegates to clinch a majority for the GOP nomination. That’s a high bar, better than he’s managed so far, but not impossible.

Clinton rights the ship

With big wins in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, plus apparent victories in Illinois and Missouri, Hillary Clinton got back on track on Tuesday night.

More importantly, Clinton is building a delegate lead that, practically, is insurmountable. In fact, even under impractical circumstances, it’s insurmountable.

While we do not have final tallies as of this writing, it appears that Hillary Clinton will have a pledged delegate lead over Bernie Sanders of more than 300 delegates. By the way, that does not include the superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who make up about 15% of the delegates and who, at this point, overwhelmingly back Clinton. However, they are free agents until the convention, so they hypothetically could change their minds.

Let’s assume a remarkably rosy finish to the nomination season for Sanders and give him 65% of the delegates in every caucus state and 55% in every primary state. That means Sanders winning states like California and New York by 10 percentage points (as well as Maryland, a state with a heavily black electorate that could easily vote like the Clinton-dominating South). So this is very unrealistic, but stick with us.

Under those stipulations, Sanders would net about 250 delegates on Clinton from now through the end of the primary season. Again, her current lead is more than 300, so she would still be ahead, and that doesn’t take into account the superdelegates.

The bad news for Clinton is that the South, her area of strength in this race, is now finished voting. Sanders should notch a number of wins in the next few weeks: For instance, caucuses in Utah and Idaho (March 22), as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and delegate-rich Washington state (March 26) all strike us as places where Sanders could do quite well in the next few weeks. Arizona holds a primary next Tuesday: Clinton may be a small favorite there but it seems reasonable to expect something close to a tie on delegates.

The schedule is also slowing down. Just 28 contests remain from now until June 14. There were 25 in just the past two weeks. Sanders now has more time to cultivate some of these states, which we think is helpful to the lesser-known but well-funded challenger.

The tricky thing about the Democratic race, as we’ve consistently said, is that there are legal questions hanging over Clinton’s head with regards to her use of private email while secretary of state. Let’s also remember that there are probably unsavory details yet to come about the fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation, and whether Clinton went out of her way as secretary of state to benefit the foundation. Again, we do not know the answers to these questions. But what we do know is that without significant developments in these stories between now and June 14 — the close of the Democratic primary season — Clinton is almost assuredly going to finish well ahead of Sanders in pledged delegates, and it’s doubtful that many of the superdelegates will flip to Sanders barring extraordinary but, in the case of Clinton, possible circumstances.

While Clinton is an uneven campaigner and shows some signs of weakness, she remains a very heavy favorite to come out of the nominating season with the requisite number of delegates to be the nominee.