GOP Presidential nomination gets murky…sort of

I’ve said several times in the last few weeks that Donald Trump is the most likely Republican nominee for President. But events that seemed to start with last week’s sophomoric “there’s nothing wrong with my penis” debate, and continue through last weekend’s voting, cloud that picture a bit.

During last week’s debate, Marco Rubio was shrill in aggressively attacked Trump, Trump responded poorly, Ted Cruz saw the opportunity, and was the net beneficiary. Cruz’s strength in states that weighed in this weekend seemed mostly at the expense of Rubio, but he seemed to take some from Trump as well. All told, it is Ted Cruz who moves into this week with enough momentum to make people wonder, mostly at Marco Rubio’s expense.

Here’s why Trump is still in the best position:

Starting with Florida and Ohio on March 15th, then moving into big midwest states, the GOP will have a bunch of winner-take-all contests. In addition to Florida (which Trump comfortably leads) and Ohio (where Trump and Kasich will battle, but Trump currently leads), those delegate-rich winner-take-all states include Illinois (winner-take-most), Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Those states represent 457 delegates. While I cannot find reputable recent polling for Missouri or Arizona as I write this, Trump doesn’t trail in any of those states. In states with recent polling, Trump currently leads in all of them to varying degrees.

If Trump were to win those states, added to the 384 delegates he’s already earned, his delegate total would rise to 841, of the 1,237 needed for the nomination. Just as importantly, since the above states constitute all the delegate-rich winner-take-all states between now and April 26, the other Republican candidates would be falling far behind, as they continue to split delegates in the proportional states (with Trump taking his fair share of them as well).

Here’s why Trump’s position is weakened:

Voting in Louisiana this weekend demonstrated how fast a candidate with a tenuous hold on supporters can fall. Granted, Trump only underperformed his polling by about 2%. But he was supposed to win the state by 15%, and only won by 4%, with a strong surge from Cruz. Trump’s support was relatively stable, but Marco Rubio’s support completely collapsed between the early voting period and election day, probably driven by Rubio’s shrill debate performance last week, and Cruz taking advantage of it.

gop-debateThe volatility of the race may indicate that all the polling in those winner-take-all states mentioned above may ultimately not be worth the paper its printed on. And the biggest irony here is that, for all the attacks on Trump from all quarters in the last week, the key reason Trump suddenly looks weak has less to do with voters leaving Trump, and more to do with voters leaving Rubio. For all the endless discussion for months about Trump’s ceiling, perhaps we should have been considering Trump’s floor.

It is by no accident that Cruz is now spending heavily all over Florida, where a much-weakened Rubio fights, probably unsuccessfully, to avoid losing his home turf. And it would not be surprising if Ohio Governor John Kasich won in his home state the same day. This newly-exposed volatility may well mean that, instead of Trump marching on toward the nomination by taking the big winner-take-all state delegates, at mid-month we may soon begin to see candidates split these states. This, in turn, makes it much more likely that nobody will get to the GOP convention with a majority of delegates, setting up the contested convention people always talk about but which seldom happens.

I still think the most likely outcome in Florida is that Trump wins, if only because Florida has a robust early voting period. Many of those voters have already cast their votes, and Trump may have already won it, regardless of subsequent events. The real show in Florida, aside from where the 99 delegates go, may be whether Trump and Cruz can deliver the knock-out punch to Rubio’s campaign. Meanwhile, in Ohio, it’s John Kasich’s chance to be taken seriously if he can win at home.

 

The current GOP volatility makes this Thursday’s Republican debate in Miami do-or-die for Rubio, and absolutely crucial for Cruz and Trump.  And it also may be time to invest heavily in the international popcorn corporation of your choice, because the last few days of the GOP contest have been anything but clarifying.

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